Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Controversy stirs over UT decision to keep ‘The Eyes’ playing

Texas Black lawmakers, civil rights leaders, University of Texas students, and alumni held a joint news conference on Monday, March 29, 2021, to denounce the University of Texas’s decision to keep “The Eyes of Texas” as its official song.

The news conference occurred in the Speaker’s Committee room in the Texas State Capitol. It highlighted concerns with the university’s decision to keep the song many see as racist, and a list of student demands.

“According to the Eyes of Texas committee report, they believe they can redefine what the song stands for by acknowledging its history,” said Anthony Collier, student body president at the University of Texas School of Law. “You can’t redefine racism. Acknowledging racism is fine, but it’s far from sufficient. It’s not enough to acknowledge racism. We must abolish racism.

“UT seems to think that because the song’s lyrics are not ‘overtly’ racist, that there’s no harm, no foul,” said Gary Bledsoe, Texas NAACP President and alumnus of UT and the UT Law School. “It’s unconscionable that UT officials have not thought about the matter from the impact on Black people – that the song is mired in the racist tradition of minstrel shows and blackface-wearing white students. We will continue talks, so they understand the impact and facts — that minstrels were performed to degrade and mock African Americans as a form of entertainment for white people. That is as racist as it gets.”

For more than a century, students at the University of Texas have joined in singing “The Eyes of Texas,” during sports events and other gatherings. But lately the song’s origins have come under heavy scrutiny by civil rights activists. (Photo: Jaycentex / Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

State Representative Ron Reynolds, Vice-Chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, stated, “I am disappointed in the university’s decision but heartened by the commitment that the young students have shown. They are simply asking for a racism-free environment so that they can be fully integrated as students. Removing the song is not too much to ask. If the song is changed, no one is harmed.”

Judson Hayden, a Junior at UT and President of the Black UT Band members, criticized the university for attempting to justify keeping the song with their Eyes of Texas committee.
“What was made abundantly clear to me and in my discussions with other members of the Black community was it felt very much so that the university was gaslighting us to believe the song was somehow acceptable,” said Judson Hayden “For months the university said, ‘We’re going to view this from a third-party lens.’ … But that’s not what happened. In my opinion, they cherry-picked information and had evidence to support a narrative they already wrote.”

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Judson also expressed concerns for his safety and other band members’ safety should they refuse to play the song at sporting events.

Zion James, a sophomore at the University of Texas and the parliamentarian for UT’s Black Student Alliance gave a list of demands for the school at the press conference on behalf of the Black UT community:

• Immediate retirement of “The Eyes of Texas”
• Allocation of more financial aid and scholarships to Black students
• Creating more affordable housing
• Appointment of more Black professors and teacher’s assistants
• Required training on race, anti-racism, and UT’s racist history
• Increased transparency between UT administration and students
• Adopting equitable and inclusive practices in recruitment, selection, and promotion of UT faculty
• All buildings named after people with racist histories be renamed for people who have worked to make the UT community more equitable

“The Eyes of Texas,” UT’s official alma mater tune and unofficial fight song, debuted at a minstrel show where white students likely wore blackface. William Prather, the university president who coined the phrase, said he took it from Confederate leaders who used similar language to inspire troops during the Civil War.

The Eyes is set to the tune “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” is a deeply offensive and racist folk song Princeton students used in 1894 to insult black railroad and levee workers.

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Students began challenging The Eyes in recent years. About a decade ago, UT basketball players refused to sing it after learning the song’s history. A couple of years ago, the UT student government debated the merits of The Eyes. During the summer of 2020, a wide-spread movement of students and athletes protested and petitioned the university to remove the song.

In response, students say hundreds of alumni and donors wrote to UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell demanding he keep the song. According to Collier, at least 75 donors threatened to stop donating to UT and several alumni used racist language toward students who are opposing the song.

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President Hartzell announced UT would keep the song. He established a committee to “research the origins and meaning of UT’s alma mater and to suggest ways for the university to move forward with greater inclusion and equity.” The report provides a detailed history of the song’s use on and off-campus but protesters say did nothing to alleviate student and alumni discomfort with what they see as a racist origin for the song.
The committee set up by the university said the song was not specifically racist, though they concede it did come from a student minstrel show.

“These historical facts add complexity and richness to the story of a song that debuted in a racist setting, exceedingly common for the time, but, as the preponderance of research showed, had no racist intent,” the report read.

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