Students file civil rights complaint over UT-Austin’s alma mater

by Jeremy

Dive Brief: 

  • Several current and former students of the University of Texas at Austin filed a complaint last week with the U.S. Department of Education alleging the institution is creating a “hostile environment” for Black students by keeping an alma mater they deem racist.
  • They say the playing of “The Eyes of Texas” denies Black students full benefits of campus life because of its “racially offensive origin, context, and meaning.” The Texas NAACP and the civil rights organization’s student chapter at UT-Austin also signed the complaint.
  • According to a recent university report on its origins, the song debuted at a minstrel show in the early 1900s. Students have been pressuring UT-Austin to stop playing the music because of those ties, but its president said it would remain the institution’s alma mater.Students file civil rights complaint over UT-Austin's alma mater

Dive Insight:

The complaint argues that Black students aren’t treated as equal members of the Longhorn community because of the song’s official place in university events. It is one of several student movements nationwide urging their schools to do away with symbols that have racist roots or glorify Confederate figures.

The groups request that the Education Department investigate its allegations against UT-Austin, ensure the university discontinues the use of the song, and require it to provide “financial and emotional assistance” to students who’ve faced discrimination or retaliation over the matter.

The complaint alleges that when some UT-Austin student tour guides complained about the song’s prominence in their workspace, the university initially gave them the option to resign. “Some tour guides did not return to work, while others continued to be humiliated,” it reads.

Black students in the school’s band have also been required to play the song to remain members, even though some have opposed performing it, the complaint states.

UT-Austin alumni and others have threatened and football players for opposing “the official use of this racist song.”

Last academic year, UT-Austin football players left the field protesting the postgame tradition of singing along to the alma mater. But athletics officials told the players that they had to remain on the turf for the song because donors were upset by their actions, The Texas Tribune reported.

The students’ identities filing suit are kept anonymous in the complaint about fears of retaliation, it says.

UT-Austin has stood by “The Eyes of Texas.” And a committee commissioned to study its historical origins concluded in a 58-page report that the anthem had no “racist intent” but that it did debut in a “racist setting.”

But recent research from Alberto Martínez, a history professor at UT-Austin, counters those conclusions. Martínez has argued that the alma mater explicitly references the words of a Confederate general and borrows the melody and some of its lyrics from a racist song about imprisoned Black workers working on a railroad levee.

UT-Austin did not respond to Higher Ed Dive’s request for comment. An Education Department spokesperson said the Office for Civil Rights does not publicly acknowledge complaints unless it agrees to investigate them. The agency updates its list of current investigations around the first Wednesday of each month.

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