Stephanie Tate | Editor-in-Chief
Anahzsa Jones | Managing Editor
Kenton Gibbs | Staff Writer
Keilah Davis| Staff Writer
On Tuesday Sep 27, 2016 screenshots of two different GroupMe chats with students at NC State containing racial slurs and critiques of a peaceful protest that occurred on campus last week were made public on various social media platforms.
Students first received word of these screenshots via Wolfpack Students, an open Facebook group with over 14,700 NC State students and alumni. Nyla Ruiz, a senior studying biological sciences, posted screenshots from a group message called “Sullivan Squad” which contained messages primarily from Connor Jackson, a freshman studying psychology, and Brennen Smith, a freshman studying agricultural science. These messages included the N-word and mocking of the Black Lives Matter movement with the acronym “BPM” which stands for black penises matter.
The screenshots were taken by Marcus Lowry, a sophomore studying mechanical engineering. Lowry was added to the GroupMe “Sullivan Squad” by a friend. Immediately upon entering the chat, he scrolled up to see what he had missed. That was when he found the messages, many of which were posted by Jackson who lives in the same suite with Lowry.
“I was taken aback,” Lowry said. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to react. Before that point, I thought he was just a regular guy, a normal suitemate. We went to the gym together, had dinner together, stuff like that.”
The first thing Lowry did was to “like” all the messages so it would be obvious that he’d seen them. Then he took screenshots and sent them to his National Society for Black Engineers group message. Within an hour, the resident advisors and resident director had been alerted and the messages were up on social media.
According to Lowry, Jackson posted: “PSA: everything in here is a joke” after seeing that Marcus had liked many of the messages. Shortly after, Lowry said Jackson came into his room to apologize and tell him that all of the comments were meant as sarcasm, which Lowry did not believe. “How can you honestly call someone a ‘dumb black n—–’ sarcastically?” Lowry said. “When he was calling people ‘dumb black n——,’ that’s what really struck me the hardest. And he kept saying that word, over and over… I can’t really accept his apology.”
Not long after the screenshots were posted on Wolfpack Students and Twitter students started to comment on the post. Many students and alumni were outraged and called for the students to be reported to student conduct, while others advocated for their right to free speech.
Jackson initially agreed to an interview with both the Nubian Message and Technician only to cancel due to a scheduling conflict. Multiple attempts were made to reschedule, but Jackson failed to respond.
Destinie Statum, a fifth year senior studying both social work and Africana studies was not surprised to hear about the slurs used by peers. “I wasn’t shocked, I was kind of saddened because I already knew where it was going to head,” Statum said.
Mika Murphy a sophomore studying physics said “I was shocked that they stated the N-word so openly in a group chat carelessly titled ‘Sullivan Squad’. I’m so disgusted by the racial bigotry so easily and carelessly perpetuated. It is outward, hideous statements like this that show there are still those who do not consider how their words affect the lives of other human beings.”
Tim Blair, a senior associate director of university housing, expressed his own shock and anger with the comments. “They reinforced the fact that we, as a campus community, as a nation, etc., are broken and that we have a long way to go to be a real community,” Blair said. “It also made me reflect on privilege. With all that has been happening in our country and our state, and the efforts of the students on campus (the Black-out and Die-In event last Friday), the nature of privilege still allows many to not ‘see’ and reflect on those things that can be determined as ‘not my fight.’”
Despite the fact that majority of the students involved lived in one residence hall, as the GroupMe name suggested, University Housing will not be pursuing any formal course of punishment or reform for the students involved.
“We believe that the most impactful repercussions for the students of this incident include the very strong response by their own peers in the campus community,” Blair said. “We will continue to encourage our RAs to promote conversation and dialogue. While this might be seen as not sufficient or ‘enough,’ the hope is that these conversations that focus on building relationships between people can be powerful means to helping us fully understand ourselves and others. And in doing so, it is my hope that we can start healing and address what is ‘broken’. As always the staff teams in the residence halls and apartment welcome ideas and suggestions.”
While the “Sullivan Squad” group message was posted to Wolfpack Students, screenshots of another GroupMe chat titled “NCSU 2020 Enginerds” circulated through Twitter. The screenshots, taken by Kenneth Hubbard, a freshman studying mechanical engineering, and Simone Wilder, a freshman studying biomedical engineering, were originally posted by Jaia Greene, a senior studying nuclear engineering. The screenshots included comments about Black Lives Matter signs that were posted in Talley Student Union.
Richard Raiford Garrabrant Jr., a freshman in the first year engineering program said that he refused to attend the recent peaceful protest on campus or any other like it until he could obtain a concealed carry permit. Information on the protest can be found here.
Other students in the group message were concerned about how this might affect them in the future.
“Chancellor Woodson put out a video saying while it’s a horrible thing to say and how we need to be a loving community that because of the first amendment he can’t bring charges against any of the people who said stuff,” Matthew Smith, another freshman student in the first year engineering program who was also a member of the “NCSU 2020 Enginerds” chat, said.
“The biggest concern for most of us is we don’t want an article, we don’t want all this to get out there. Our concern is defamation of character and libel and we don’t want that to show up later. We want that to get shut down as soon as possible” said Smith.
John Klemes, another freshman who is also in the first year engineering program, wanted to distance himself from the “Sullivan Squad” GroupMe.
“Completely unrelated to the Sullivan GroupMe, I’m involved because the engineering GroupMe was having a discussion prompted by the Black Lives Matter meeting in Talley,” Klemes said. “I got involved because I said I’m not ready for my school to be burned down, which wasn’t me trying to say anything about the nature of African American people. I wasn’t seriously concerned with them burning down the school.”
According to Klemes, “the main thing that happened to me that I’m worried about is that one person on Twitter didn’t like my avatar. It was a Jewish person with a big nose. My friend whose part Jewish told me that picture looked just like me. Now not only am I being called racist against black people, now I’m being called anti-semitic.”
In addition to students’ responses, administration made an effort to respond to these events.
When asked for a comment, Chancellor Woodson told the Nubian Message, “These comments in no way reflect the values of NC State. I am so proud of our students of color for their positive efforts to organize the Die-in and Black-out events of last week. Everyone on this campus has my commitment to continue working toward our shared values and goals of institutional equity, diversity and inclusion.”
On Sep 28, 2016 Chancellor Woodson released a video where he spoke on the issue. “We do not condone these statements, but they are protected by the First Amendment,” Woodson said. “The University cannot punish students for hurtful and offensive comments.”
Some students were disappointed by the chancellor’s stance on the issue. Lowry was hoping for a “more active” response. “You can’t say these types of things without consequences,” Lowry said. “But recently I saw the Chancellor’s video. I think he tried to help the healing process, but I think he’s basically saying that there’s nothing that can be done. So then more people who might share their racist views, they know that they can if they want to, and I think that’s terrible.”
“There is a difference between free speech and hate speech,” Katherine Stubbs, a sophomore studying political science, said. “You implicitly told an underrepresented group of the student body, who by the way already feels unheard and unseen, that you are not going to do anything about it.”
Statum felt that Chancellor Woodson’s message was too political. “I don’t want his sorry a– apology,” said Statum. “I don’t care. If you’re not going to do anything about it, say you’re not going to do anything about it. But at the end of the day he’s trying to appease his rich people that are donors. That ain’t got nothing to do with me. I’m here to get my education, it shouldn’t be about politics.”
Vice Chancellor and Dean of Academic and Student Affairs, Mike Mullen expressed his support for African American students. “Know that I and the university administration are supportive of you and all African American students, faculty and staff on campus,” Mullen said.
In response to the backlash, Jackson and Smith wrote an apology letter which was distributed to students through Student Body President, Paul Nolan’s HOWL email.
“We know what we said is very offensive and hurtful to the African-American community here on campus and we acknowledge that someone who we all considered a very close friend will probably never be able to forgive us for the hurt we have caused him,” Jackson and Smith said. “This has been a hard lesson but we have learned from it and are dedicated to making sure this doesn’t happen again…We’re sorry for our words, and we’re sorry for how they hurt many people, some of whom are very close to us. The pain we’ve caused will take a long time to heal; it is just our hope that it will be able to at some point.”
Some students did not feel this apology was enough. “The letter looked real cookie cutter,” Lowry said. “The best we can get is two short paragraphs from two people? I’m glad they at least took the initiative though. Maybe it’s finally settling in that there’s such a thing as consequences for their actions.”
“To me it felt insincere,” Ryan Barnes, a senior studying paper science and engineering, said. “It was so brief and to the point that I was done reading it by the time I started. And I am confused as to why they chose to send one apology letter for two whole students.”
Statum said, “I don’t want your apology. At this point if you’re a bigot, if you’re a racist, say it to my face so I know who you are. Let me be able to acknowledge you and walk away from you, because I don’t want to sit in a classroom with you and not know who you are.”
Students are making plans to move forward following this incident. Karle Peed, a junior studying criminology, was concerned. “I think it’s very sad that people in our community, people our age, still think and speak in this manner, and I hope that they’re sincerely sorry and we as a campus can move on and improve after this,” Peed said.
Lowry plans to move from Sullivan within the month to avoid the awkward, isolated atmosphere he’s expecting in the dorm. “I don’t want to associate myself with them anymore…it would just be really lonely for me,” Lowry said.
Hubbard said, “I’m moving forward with my education regardless of how racist my fellow engineers are. I’m just going to be more aware of my surroundings, and not lose hope with all white people because of a few.”
Wilder plans to move on as well. “I’m moving forward by focusing on my education, but also making sure that NC State will not allow these racist remarks to be tolerated in a community that claims to be diverse and inclusive.”
The importance of diversity and inclusion at NC State has been called into question before, but seems to be in an even more perilous position in light of these comments.
Lowry said, “Race relations at State were already almost like, in peril. It wasn’t where it should have been. And then this event I mean, it made things worse. Like, the straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak.”