For the University of Puget Sound, the formal investigation into recent allegations of racism on campus — stemming from a visit by a group of largely minority high school students in February — has concluded.
Now comes the more difficult part.
As you may recall, Omar Wandera, the vice principal of a Bay Area charter high school who led a visit of about 45 students to UPS last month, complained in the aftermath that his group experienced acts of subtle and “overt” racism.
In the complaint, Wandera said some of his Spanish-speaking students overheard UPS students say things like, “get this trash out of here” while they toured the campus. He also described a trip to the campus bookstore — an experience he says included store employees racially profiling his predominantly Latino students. Even with adult supervision, Wandera claims bookstore employees followed the students around and instructed them not to touch the merchandise because “their hands were greasy.”
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UPS Academic Vice President and Dean Kris Bartanen said in an interview earlier this month that UPS received Wandera’s complaint Feb. 18. She described the school as “deeply troubled” by it.
In response, UPS officials, including the school’s chief diversity officer and dean of diversity and inclusion, Michael Benitez, spent the past month trying to determine exactly what happened and what might have gone wrong.
This week, UPS President Ronald Thomas delivered the findings in a campuswide letter.
The investigation found that the incidents that could be verified were not motivated by racial discrimination, but that some practices followed for the management of large groups in the bookstore have a disparate impact on persons of color. … It is clear that the students and teachers visiting campus experienced harm as a result.
UPS President Ronald Thomas, in a letter announcing the findings of the school’s investigation
“The investigation found that the incidents that could be verified were not motivated by racial discrimination, but that some practices followed for the management of large groups in the bookstore have a disparate impact on persons of color,” Thomas wrote. “It is clear that the students and teachers visiting campus experienced harm as a result.”
“Although some of our protocols for dealing with large groups are theoretically neutral, in fact they have a disparate effect on different groups of people. We must acknowledge this. We must do better,” Thomas’ letter continued.
The president pledged to implement “a series of recommendations aimed to create more culturally competent customer service procedures and enhanced training for staff.” Thomas also said UPS had “sent an apology to the students and teachers, and shared the findings of the investigation with the school principal.”
I spoke to Wandera this week, who told me after a long pause, “Well, I’d say I’m disappointed” by the results of the investigation. “I don’t see where anyone is taking responsibility for what happened.”
Wandera says it feels like the school is “tiptoeing” — and trying to “appease” him while not admitting guilt. Based on his experiences with the school, he says he still feels like he could never recommend that one of his students attend UPS.
In many ways, an investigation into allegations of racism at UPS has yielded predictable findings. Intentional racial discrimination, the school says, was not to blame — at least in the incidents that could be verified.
Instead, Thomas spoke of an underlying “structural racism” that the school will work toward addressing.
“Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions consciously choose to practice,” Thomas wrote. “It is part of the social, economic and political systems in which we exist. The impacts of structural racism are real and hurtful, even if behaviors are not motivated by malice or discriminatory treatment.”
It’s not the place of a white guy behind a keyboard to proclaim that UPS has gone far enough in response to Wandera’s complaint. But reading Thomas’ letter, the admission of the harm done by structural racism does seem significant — and important.
This entire conversation we’ve been having is not just about the work we’ve done but the work that’s before us. I see this work as ongoing.
Gayle McIntosh, the executive director of communications at UPS
“This entire conversation we’ve been having is not just about the work we’ve done but the work that’s before us. I see this work as ongoing,” Gayle McIntosh, the executive director of communications at UPS, told me.
When it comes to that ongoing work, McIntosh cites efforts like the new Knowledge Identity and Power graduation requirement, which, she says, helps “students develop their understanding of the dynamics and consequences of power differentials, inequalities and divisions among social groups.” She also references UPS’ longstanding Race and Pedagogy Initiative, a collaborative community effort to confront racism that’s been in existence at the school for over a decade.
“I think we have a long way to go before everyone is going to be happy. … This is hard work,” McIntosh says. “This is really hard work. And it’s important work, and we have to do it. We want to do it.”
That sounds good.
Results, of course, will be what matters.