Balloon attacks at UT-Austin can’t just be dismissed

Joshua Tang

The recent reports of racially motivated balloon attacks resemble the same reports that surfaced last academic year. These reports are serious and have rightfully sparked conversations about race, recruitment and retention at our University. 

These discussions have the possibility of transforming our University from a space that has historically served Texas’ most privileged to one that reflects the interest of our entire state. 

Currently, however, the reports surrounding the balloon incidents — and the subsequent discussions — have left our University trapped in an unproductive cacophony of voices that seem to be doing more harm than good. The question that must be confronted is why students of color feel unsafe and unwanted at our University.

The focus of the conversation so far has been misplaced and prevents our campus from engaging in a deeper and more productive discussion. I am very pleased that University officials, the UT Police Department and the Austin Police Department are seriously investigating the content of the balloons.

 However, it seems that the onus of proof has been placed on the students who report the incidents. The nature of the problem (anonymous perpetrators and easily lost evidence) makes that difficult. The result is that our campus has gotten trapped in minutiae.  

Moreover, the acknowledgement of bleach-filled balloons being dropped on students in West Campus is nothing new. A common retort to the claim that the balloon attacks are racially motivated is that women who participate in sororities (who are not necessarily people of color) are often targeted by bleach-filled balloons, beer cans and other items. 

The second part of that retort is that the throwing of balloons and other items is banal and should be dismissed. Such dismissal is impossible for people of color.

The complexities of race in America and at our University should be central to the discussion of the balloon attacks. It is easy for people of color — and other historically marginalized groups (e.g., women and LBGTQ persons) — to perceive the balloon incidents, along with the University and city’s responses, as attacks on our bodies and an attempt to push us out of the community. The United States — a nation that I love and that has provided me with great opportunity — originally proclaimed itself only open to “free white persons.” Similarly, the University of Texas did not become open to students of color until 1950 in Sweatt v. Painter

The history of race relations at our University and in our nation remains complex. Our nation’s prison population is nearly 40 percent black and the average black high school graduate reads at the same level as an average white eighth-grade student. 

These facts are constant indicators of a racially-divided society with people of color at the bottom. Moreover, during last year’s heavy coverage of Fisher v. University of Texas, every student of color’s right to attend our University (which is only 4 percent black) was called into question. It is not difficult, therefore, for students of color to feel targeted by their classmates and ignored by University officials when the balloons are thrown — regardless of their contents.

My hope is for our University to enter into more uplifting and supportive dialogue. I have faith that no Longhorns harbor hatred for any group and that all want to make our University the best in the nation. That will require true listening, based in respect, from Longhorns on all sides of this issue. We should demand and create forums for that dialogue to happen. Only then we will be able to move beyond the minutiae and bring Texas together.

Tang is a Government and History senior from Houston, Texas.