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How racism allegations shook a New York university known for diversity

 Staten Island is the least diverse of New York City’s five boroughs.

A university praised as one of the most diverse colleges in the country has come under scrutiny after students alleged a series of racist incidents on campus.

A series of students have lodged complaints with St John’s University, in New York City, over the past year, the latest coming after a protest over a student’s “blackface” Instagram post ended with white students allegedly shouting the n-word at black students at a university event.
The accusations have led to the NAACP and a local councilwoman demanding the university – a private, Catholic college – take action, while students have criticized the university’s response. It comes against a backdrop of racially charged incidents across the US, which included Starbucks closing 8,000 stores for racial bias training last week.
The furore at St John’s began in April, when a female student posted an image on Instagram of five white women whose faces had been replaced by faces of black men. The photo was captioned: “Buzz buzz” followed by the n-word.
Myrakel Baker, a legal studies and government and politics student at St John’s, complained to the university, which launched an investigation. In the meantime, black students from the university’s Staten Island and Queens campuses held a silent protest at a university event, where they say they were taunted by white students.
“We all wore black to show solidarity with what’s going on and stand up to the administration, saying: ‘You have to do something,’” Baker told the Guardian.
“And I saw flashing lights in my face and people saying: ‘Go back to where you came from... It was a lot going on.”
Claire Robinson, a 19-year-old communications student at St John’s, also attended the protest, along with about 25 other black students.
“They called us the n-word a few times in a few different ways,” Robinson said. She said “at least 10” white students were involved.
“I wouldn’t say it was a welcoming environment at all. It was pretty tense.”
St John’s responded to the racist Instagram post by sending an email to students describing the behavior as unacceptable. Brian Browne, a spokesman for the university, said the student who shared the image was no longer enrolled at the university.
After the protest where black students said they were taunted, St John’s commissioned an investigation by an outside counsel, Browne said. He would not share the results of that investigation, citing privacy laws.
Both incidents occurred on the Staten Island campus, which Baker criticized for a lack of diversity. The campus, made up of just under 2,000 students, is 72% white. Only 4% of students are black; 10% are Latino and 4% Asian.
Browne, the college spokesman, said that the Staten Island campus was not representative of the St John’s as a whole. The Queens campus was less than 50% white, he said.
“We are the one of the most diverse campuses in the country,” Browne said.
“The makeup of that small campus looks like Staten Island. So our student population just mirrors the population of the borough in which it is housed. In Queens, a very diverse borough, our campus looks a lot like Queens.”
Staten Island is the least diverse of New York City’s five boroughs. According to the 2010 census, 71% of the population is white, 9% is black, 6% is Asian and 12% is Hispanic.
Schaddai Sosa, a 20-year-old psychology and English student who also attended the talent show protest – said she was told to “get the fuck out of here” by white students – and added that the Staten Island campus’s lack of diversity contributed to her feeling unwelcome.
“You feel very small on that campus,” she said. “And very underrepresented in the students and the staff they have, so you don’t necessarily feel comfortable, and it never really feels safe.”
Sosa’s sister, Paola Sosa, a marketing major, said she had heard of students not wanting to attend university at the Staten Island campus due to a lack of diversity.
Other students say the St John’s problems with race are not restricted to the Staten Island campus.
“These are not isolated events,” Robinson said.
“The Queens campus has erupted in protest three times in the last academic year over incidents of institutional racism – once in the fall semester and twice in the spring semester.”
In 2015, US News and World Report named St John’s as the second-most diverse university in the US in terms of the proportion of minority students. It was named the fifth most diverse in 2016, and in 2018 the 20th most diverse.
The group Students of Consciousness – St John’s University has repeatedly complained of racial bias at the college. In November 2017 it issued a statement saying that black students had been treated dismissively at a faculty meeting, and in February of the same year more than a hundred black students held a protest after three black women were threatened by a white student.
“What St John’s gives you is classes where the professors are white, where for example when you take a philosophy class the only philosophers they teach you about are old white ones,” said Kenneth Shelton, an organiser with Students of Consciousness.

“If I went to school in Iowa, you’d expect this from a school there. You’d still fight it, but you’d expect it. But St John’s markets itself as this sort of racial utopia.”
Students held a silent protest at St John’s on 7 May, which was attended by the NAACP and the New York City councilwoman Debi Rose.
“There is no place for bigotry in our society, and incidents like these must be addressed with vigor,” Rose told the Guardian.
“I walked in solidarity with St John’s students to show them they are not alone, and to demand the university address these incidents immediately.”
Rose said she had since met with the university “with a list of demands, beginning with the hiring of a diversity officer and an infusion of diversity across the staff and all curriculum”.
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