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Black student activists extract concessions from Amherst College after disputed ‘n-word’ incident

White players allegedly told each other ‘goodnight n-words’ 

Amherst College has agreed to most of the demands of the Black Student Union in the wake of the school’s yearlong suspension of the entire lacrosse team, according to the BSU.

They include establishing an institutional “Bias Reporting and Response Protocol” by this fall, and implementing “[o]ngoing training and assessments” for student staff, organization leaders, teams and coaches, the activist group’s executive board wrote in an op-ed for The Amherst Student.

President Biddy Martin also promised the BSU that the college would revise two policies, the Statement of Academic and Expressive Freedom and Statement of Freedom of Expression and Dissent, the group claimed. Both would be changed to acknowledge “the harm of hateful and harassing speech,” she allegedly wrote in an email to the group.

Martin herself has not verified the comments attributed to her, and has not implicitly addressed the subject of the lacrosse team since her March 27 statement “Addressing Racism on Campus.”

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The BSU’s characterization of three lacrosse team members as having “screamed and chanted” the n-word outside a black player’s room, which led the liberal arts college to suspend the entire team for a year, may have been overstated.

As Greenfield Recorder sports columnist Chip Ainsworth noted, the campus newspaper itself gave an alternate explanation. It interviewed an “uninvolved team captain” who said he had spoken to all four teammates about the incident.

This person said the three team members had told each other “goodnight n-words” loudly enough that the black teammate heard it and confronted them, leading to a “physical altercation.” The Amherst Student, however, originally reported the players had “chanted” the n-word and described the incident as “racist.”

#IntegrateAmherst 

Amherst suspended the 50-member team in March for what it called “racist, harassing speech” by three players and “deeply troubling” incidents involving a few others. The administration has consistently refused to explain to The College Fix why allegations against individual members required the suspension of the entire team, and for the whole 2021 season.

Eight demands were presented to President Martin, who told BSU that the college is committed to carrying out most of these requests, the activist group wrote in its May 1 op-ed.

Martin herself was more cautious in her first extended statement two months ago on the demands from BSU and others.

“One of Amherst’s great strengths is careful, critical thinking and vigorous exchange about important matters,” she wrote, and it requires the efforts of more than just black student activists.

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“The BSU petitioners demand that we ‘integrate Amherst,’” she continued: “That will take us all, working together. We can take a number of necessary steps during this very difficult period so that more of what we need is in place in the fall.”

The BSU launched the #IntegrateAmherst movement after the early March incident involving “some members” of the team, as Amherst Athletics described it in a March 20 statement also signed by Martin and Provost Catherine Epstein. (The administration itself has never specified the context of the “racist, harassing speech” except to note it included “the ‘n-word.’”)

The movement, which ended earlier this month when the BSU said most of its demands had been met, consisted of an op-ed series that set out to explain the goals for Amherst moving forward.

The activists created a public Google Doc, now 194 pages long, on March 16 and shared it throughout the Amherst community to explain the status of their demands and ask others to sign onto them. Currently, 188 of the pages consist of signatures from school organizations, students and faculty from Amherst and other schools, and other individuals.

MORE: Amherst suspends 50-member team for ‘incident’ involving three

Words are an ‘act of violence’

“The perpetuation of violent discriminatory behavior of many students who are allowed onto Amherst’s campus with little to no anti-racism and bias training and no accountability is a problem in and of itself,” the introduction reads.

“Most importantly, however, this incident [involving lacrosse players] exposes institutional ineptitude as is regards to handling a series of threats of racialized violence. It is another clear instance of the college’s lack of specific processes to handle situations like this.”

In contrast to earlier reporting by the campus newspaper, the BSU claimed “several white lacrosse players and other white students” participated in the “act of violence” against a black player, who “punched” one of them “in self-defense.” One of their demands was that this black student not face punishment.

The group appeared to be referring to possible sanctions against the black student when it complained in its “Update” statement May 1 that Martin “did not agree to amend the judiciary processes” surrounding the incident: “The Black Student Union still holds that it is hypocritical to punish someone based on flawed law.” (The Google Doc includes a slightly different version of this update, dated April 20 and referring to “the victim” of the alleged harassment, than the version that ran May 1 in The Amherst Student.)

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As the group demanded, Martin agreed to revise Amherst’s Academic and Expressive Freedom and Freedom of Expression and Dissent statements, the BSU claimed: “More specifically, President Martin will ask our Provost and Dean of Faculty, Catherine Epstein, and the Committee of Six to find ways to ensure that the statement on Academic and Expressive Freedom acknowledges the harm of hateful and harassing speech.”

The group added a conciliatory line in the campus newspaper version of their update. Despite Martin’s refusal to change “judiciary processes … we appreciate that the president is willing to join us in trying to make the campus a better place.”

Neither the BSU nor Caroline Hanna, Amherst’s director of media communications, responded to Fix queries about the college’s reasoning for not granting all eight demands.

BSU claims its version of events is not biased

The original statement the BSU released referred to “other versions of this narrative” that were less “detailed” than its own claims about “several” white students, and not just players, harassing the black player and another black student. It explained discrepancies as the result of the “unsalvageably” biased investigation the school conducted.

One of the biggest discrepancies, other than the number of students allegedly chanting the n-word, came courtesy of the student newspaper.

The March 27 report, published the same day as Martin’s statement on campus “racism,” said it had confirmed the names of the three white players: Dylan Finazzo, Rodrigo Castro and Matt Solberg, who had been outed by a Twitter account.

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The “uninvolved team captain” said he talked to those three as well as the black teammate, whose identity The Amherst Student continues to protect. From these conversations, he determined that the black teammate “overheard” the three white players loudly wishing each other good night while referring to each other as “n-words.” (This is a common personal greeting and farewell among white fans of hip-hop culture as well as African-American men generally.)

The newspaper, however, also claimed that “students present” during the incident had told it that the three white players “chanted” the n-word outside the teammate’s room. Co-editors in chief Olivia Gieger and Natalie De Rosa uncritically accepted the BSU’s explanation that the activists’ own account had been “confirmed by other individuals who witnessed the event.”

Outside attention to the incident largely promoted the version shared by the BSU. For example, BET.com headlined the incident: “Outrage After Amherst Lacrosse Players Chant N-Word Outside of Black Player’s Suite.”

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IMAGES: Helder Almeida/Shutterstock, Amherst Athletics

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About the Author
Brianna Kraemer is a junior at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs studying communication, political science and Spanish. While studying in Spain, she was a student blogger for the AIFS study abroad program. Her work has also been published in The Scribe, the student newspaper at UCCS. She participates in Turning Point USA on her campus and hopes to pursue a career in politics and journalism.

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