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Western's Interim President on Local Racial Issues: "We Must Do Better"

Jun 24, 2020

Western Illinois University Interim President Martin Abraham is not mincing words when it comes to systemic racism in Macomb.

“There are some – perhaps many – who will find these next words uncomfortable. However, we can no longer be silent or complicit in describing the issues and concerns that I’m hearing about and seeing firsthand,” Dr. Abraham said in remarks to the WIU Board of Trustees (BoT) on June 12. He shared similar comments with Macomb City Council members during their June 15 meeting.

“The longer I continue in my role as interim president, the greater understanding I have for the challenges that former President Dr. Jack Thomas faced. He faced systemic anti-black racism both at Western and within our host communities, and this racism still exists today.”

Dr. Jack Thomas at his desk in the WIU presidential office in August 2016.
Credit Rich Egger

He said perhaps the most visible example happened about a year ago when signs reading “Fire Jack Support WIU” showed up around Macomb.

“He deserved better,” said Abraham.

He said WIU and Macomb owe it to the university’s students to speak out about ongoing injustices, acknowledge wrongdoings, and take direct action that leads to change. He also said WIU cannot be successful until black students, alumni, faculty, and staff feel as though they truly belong and are welcomed.

“Back in October, at our annual Town and Gown celebration, I called upon our community to welcome our students the same way that I have been welcomed into this community,” Abraham said.

“To my great despair, this has not happened.”

He said Macomb cannot serve as host to a diverse institution if it does not welcome and embrace people of color. He said people of color comprise more than 20% of the university’s student population. 

Abraham told the BoT he has appointed an assistant to the president for diversity, hired two African Americans to provide support for students, changed some hiring practices, talked to the Office of Public Safety about its policing efforts, and taken other actions.

He also told the Board that he has directed Interim Provost Billy Clow to explore the possibility of restarting the African American Studies program.

African American Studies, Philosophy, Women’s Studies, and Religious Studies were eliminated as majors in 2016 during the Thomas administration. All four are still offered as minors.

“WIU will do better, and I will continue to do my best to work in the community to get them to do better as well,” he told the BoT.

In his comments to the city council, Abraham pointed to the irony of asking students to mark Macomb as their home when filling out census forms.

“I wish that Macomb really did recognize that this is their home and would welcome them into their home as equals in the community,” Abraham said.

He said the Twitter hashtag #Blackatwiu contains stories of racism encountered by WIU students of color both on campus and in the community.

Abraham said workshops and similar events are essential to starting a dialogue to counter racism, but added that’s not enough. He said it is critical to turn words into action, even if it makes people uncomfortable.

“It’s time for you - and I’m addressing our community leaders and our community’s residents - to step out of your comfort zone and speak out against how our black residents and our underrepresented populations have been disproportionately treated.”

He said hiring practices in the community must be reviewed, and he said people from underrepresented communities should be asked to serve on commissions, committees, and boards. 

Fifth Ward Alderwoman Gayle Carper said anyone who’s been subjected to racism in Macomb can seek help from Mayor Mike Inman and/or any city council member. 

“I don’t have any doubt that there is racism in Macomb. I saw it at Western during the years I taught there, I saw it in the court system when I practiced there, and I still see it in my personal life,” Carper said.

Other city council members also urged those who experience racism in Macomb to reach out to city leaders. 

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