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At UMass Amherst, 26% of Black students feel like they don't belong on campus

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A UMass Amherst survey finds that 26% of Black students report feeling like they do not belong on campus compared to 8% of white students.

Just a few days after the results were made public, some Black students received a racist email, which highlighted issues raised in the survey.

Zach Steward, a junior and a Black student at UMass, said he remembers the first time he witnessed a racist act on campus.

"Somebody had written the words 'hang,' and then 'Melville' — which is the name of the dorm I was in at the time — and the N-word on the bathroom mirror," Steward said.

That was his first semester, back in 2018.

In response, UMass created an online bias incident tracker. It publicly records racist epithets, microaggressions, and prejudice that would not be considered hate crimes. These cases are also filed with the UMass Police Department. Twenty-one cases were reported last semester, with eight this spring.

Steward said he still doesn’t feel like he belongs.

"This is a predominantly white institution," Steward said. "There aren't that many people that look like me on campus. I don't think the university does enough to recruit and retain Black people — whether it be Black students, faculty, staff, even Black administrators."

At UMass, Black students make up about 5% of the undergraduate population, with Black professors making up about the same percentage of tenured faculty. Overall in Massachusetts, about 7% of the population identifies as Black.

The day after our interview, Steward and at least three other students received a racist email from a fake sender — similar to a racist message sent last semester. The latest email described Black students as "animals" and said, "You are not in Africa anymore."

The sender claimed their racist group includes members of the police and university administration.

"It's just simply not true that we have people in administration who are on their side," said Nefertiti Walker, vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at UMass. "But those are things that these sorts of people do to try to divide and in some ways conquer the climate and the morale of communities."

Walker notes UMass opened an investigation with the Northwestern District Attorney’s office into who sent the first email.

Since then, her office created the Black Advisory Council, an independent group meant to improve the experiences of Black students on campus. There was also an increase in funding to UMass's Center of Racial Justice.

"We've come a long way…but we have a lot of work to do in making that that diverse student body all feel a sense of belonging in their own unique in particular ways," Walker said.

But Amilcar Shabazz, a professor in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass, said this response isn’t enough.

"The administration…it does things. It's still not connected. It's not connected to the Black students. It's not connected to Black faculty," Shabazz said.

Shabazz said he finds the student survey results deeply concerning.

"When you ask ... "Do you have a sense of belonging to this place call the University of Massachusetts Amherst? Are you a Minuteman or you a Minutewoman? Go UMass proud" — what do more than one out of four [Black students] tell you? They have no sense of belonging, no sense of connection," Shabazz said.

Forty-two percent of Black students also said they felt like they had no role models or mentors on campus, according to the survey.

For student Zach Steward, he’s burned out and exhausted from dealing with these racist attacks. He said he's hoping change comes soon, but is not holding his breath.

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Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.