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Racial Incidents Hit Close to Home: On My Campus

By now most of you have probably heard of the incident that occurred at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) last week. A young White college student, Tristan John Rettke, taunted a group of Black Lives Matter protesters. He was bare-footed, dressed up as a gorilla, carrying a Confederate flag, taunting protesters with bananas, ropes and nooses. He had a bag labeled “marijuana” and spoke in broken dialect.

Sometimes I wonder if we are living in 2016 or 1916!

As a professor who teaches at ETSU, I had an understandably curious and vested interest in what had went down on my campus. What was even more interesting — and at the same time, disgusting — was that the incident took place at Borchuck Plaza. The plaza is only a few feet from my office at Rogers Stout Hall, which is located directly in front of the university library. Adding insult to injury, this is the plaza where a fountain was established to honor the five Black students ― Eugene Caruthers, Elizabeth Watkins Crawford, Clarence McKinney, George L. Nichol and Mary Luellen Owens Wagner — who integrated the university in the 1950s. This is where the students were holding their protest.

As you can imagine, more than a little hell broke loose. Things went down much differently for the young person who admitted that his intentions were to “provoke the Black protestors.” Indeed, Retkke’s antics made both national and international news, yet he became the latest poster boy for outlandish and shameful racism.

I was not on campus at the time of this disgusting display of subhuman behavior by Retkke and in some ways I am glad that I was not. I might have been inclined to leave my office, run outside, confront him and go all MBM (mad Black Man) on him. I am sure that is what many of the students he was taunting wanted to do as well. That being said, I admire and commend our students involved in the peaceful protest for acting in just that manner, peacefully. They did not allow their emotions to overcome their better judgment. They did not sink or succumb to his pathetic level. Rather, they managed to let their message reign supreme.

Trust me, all of us who are well past our late teens know that, at that stage of your life, you can often react and snap, especially when you feel you are being disrespected and your humanity is being challenged. Again, bravo to the students at my institution.

Eventually, campus police confronted and identified Rettke. Afterward, he was detained and charged with civil rights intimidation. He was later arrested and is to be arraigned next month.  

Not surprisingly, certain factions on social media came to the defense of Rettke. Rather than acknowledge that he engaged in behavior that was odious and deplorable, they decided to revert to intellectually dishonest comments denouncing Black Lives Matter as a hate group, that Blacks attack Whites all the time, and other nonsensical and indefensible blather.

The university administration is to be commended for its rapid response to the incident. ETSU President Brian Noland released a thoughtful statement to the ETSU Student Body and the larger ETSU community, in which he praised the BLM student protesters for handling a situation that could have ended up with a very ugly and volatile outcome with grace and dignity. Later that evening, there was public forum at the University Culp Center, where a number of faculty, administrators and students attended to express their thoughts on the event and their feelings about the overall climate as it related to race relations on campus. Like most campuses, to be sure, there is room for improvement.

The following day, another professor and I started off a class we are co-teaching by discussing the incident, before moving onto the subject that was scheduled for the week. As it turned out, several of the students had actually participated in the protest. The discussion was indeed lively at times.

I did not arrive to campus until later in the afternoon the day of the incident and was not aware of it until one of my colleagues, who happens to be White, came to my office and told me about it. It was clear that he was visibly perplexed.

Upon hearing the news, I was shocked. Not at the fact that a student harbored racist beliefs or attitudes, that’s a given. Rather, what surprised me was the manner and blatantly racist level of disrespectful behavior this guy engaged in. One can only speculate as to whether they will conduct a psychological evaluation on this young man.

Rettke is a very callous, arrogant and disgracefully racist human being. He obviously has little, if any regard, for the human dignity of other people who are different from him. It is a sad commentary for sure. Nonetheless, in spite of the shameless behavior he exhibited, justice did prevail and the results likely will follow him for quite some time, and possibly, forever.

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