Let’s start with a quick summary:
- The University of Montana’s student Martin Luther King Jr. Day Committee, made up of members of the Black Student Union, the head of the African-American studies program, and members of the community, decided to hold a writing contest to honor the civil rights leader.
It was called “King’s Legacy Lives: A Writing Contest,” and the essay challenge was to explain how the entrant was “implementing Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy” at the University.
- Six students submitted an essay.
All six were white. (Oh-oh.)
- A “blind review process” chose four winners who subsequently took part in a a special MLK Day event, a panel discussion about how King’s legacy had influenced their lives with keynote speaker, UM alumna and Montana Racial Equity Project Outreach Coordinator Meshayla Cox.
Unfortunately, the University couldn’t avoid announcing the contest results.
- When UM announced the winners on its Facebook page, including the winning essays and a photograph of the four students, it is fair to say the the student body went bonkers.
In response to the uproar, the University took down the photos and the essays, and added a statement that…
“The criticism regarding only four white students who submitted and ultimately won the essay contest is fair. It is also troubling. Yes. These students are white. But the color of their skin does not preclude them from submitting an essay, publicly honoring MLK or working toward equality. That takes all of us, including those of you who have responded with passion and concern about the result of this contest.”
The University also said, “We made the decision to remove the photos due to concerns of student safety.”
Here are some typical comments on the announcement of the contest results:
- “This is unbelievably tone deaf. I cannot understand how anyone would think remembering the legacy of MLK Jr. is achieved by giving four white girls a shout out. If the university does not have Black voices to lift up on MLK Day then find them. Do not center Whiteness on the day we are supposed to remember MLK Jr.’s legacy. How is this so difficult to comprehend?” [ What was the University supposed to do, refuse to announce the winners because they were white? Does the University reach the Constitution? ]
- “What in the heck?! How much whiter can this get. Here’s a thought, if you like this contest, you could give it another name. This is insulting to everything Dr. King worked for.” [ In fact, Dr. King was fighting for equal opportunity and respect. And what “other name” for a Martin Luther King Day contest would change anything?]
- “I believe that it’s very likely no poc applied – but that doesn’t excuse praising wt ppl “struggles” and “becoming woke” in the name of MLK, it’s extremely insensitive, lack forethought and reeks of self righteousness.” [Likely?]
- “Seriously!? This is how you promote this day? I would have cancelled it instead. Tone deaf, priveledged…I just cannot understand how you get this sooo wrong.” [You can’t promote a contest that people enter in good faith and cancel the award because you wish someone else won.]
- “I find it disturbing that only white faces are represented, especially when honoring MLK Day. How can someone with the privilege of being white truly speak to the struggles which Dr. King spoke about? We cannot. This is one more example of assuming the only words of value are white words. Do better.” [Do better yourself—the comment is bigoted and incoherent, even though the writer is white. Well-indoctrinated, though…]
More than commenter posited a conspiracy theory in which the school intentionally discarded black student entries. Obviously this makes no sense, unless the University was trying to cause a racial blow-up. They apparently don’t teach Hanlon’s razor at Montana U.
What’s going on here?
Most of all, incompetence.
In my ethics seminars, I emphasize that the vital skill to develop is not jsut the ability to solve ethics problems when they present themselves, but to anticipate and act to prevent ethics problems from developing, at the earliest possible point. Out of nearly 8,000 undergraduate students at the University of Montana, only 76 are black. That’s less than 1%. Did the school not know its own demographics? The possibility of the winners of the contest, which, as noted above, was going to be judged “blind,” without the judges knowing the race or ethnicity of the applicants (that seems silly, since the odds of the essays making clear what the race of the writers were is high), being all white students was considerable even if some black students had submitted essays. It shouldn’t have taken much foresight to realize how such a result would be received.
The organizers should have anticipated the risk and promoted black student entries, going so far as to solicit them from outstanding black student leaders and writers. It could have bi-bifurcated the contest, with essays focused “as a non-black student,” and “as a black student.”The contest certainly could have offered more enticement than the honor itself. I bet a thousand dollars per winning entry would have raised more than six essays.
Once only six essays were submitted and all from white students, the contest should have been quietly cancelled for lack of interest. When that option was rejected, the University was in ethics zugswang—nothing could avoid a full scale ethics mess. From there, it was one blunder after another. Having an all-white student panel discussing Dr. King was certain to spark anger and exacerbate racial tensions. Taking down the pictures and essays looked like a cover-up. Saying that it was done “for safety” suggested that the campus’s black students were dangerous.
As for the critical comments, they were mostly irrational and based in emotion, making the student body look angry and incapable of reason. If no black students chose to enter an essay, then the school could not be criticized for having all-white winners. The inherent racism and tribalism of many of the comments was disturbing, if not surprising. Why can’t a white student be inspired by Dr. King?
Meanwhile, a new Gallup poll released last week claimed that Americans have become considerably optimistic about the state of race relations, with a 14-point increase over just three years. Satisfaction on “the state of race relations” in the U.S. rose from a 22% in January 2017 to 36% in January 2020,
I don’t understand how anyone can be optimistic or satisfied about the state of race relations when an controversy can occur like the the University of Montana’s MLK Day essay contest.