A racially charged opinion column in Winthrop University’s student newspaper created a campus uproar last week, prompting a forum and angering many black students who found the column offensive.
The column, with the headline “Student observes double standards at Winthrop,” was written by copy editor Christine Byington and ran in Wednesday’s edition of the student-led weekly newspaper, The Johnsonian.
In the column, Byington, who is bi-racial, criticized blacks who complain about Winthrop and went on to oppose minority scholarships and organizations devoted to blacks, arguing that equal treatment should be given to other races. She also compared today’s racial climate for whites to the oppression blacks faced before the Civil Rights movement.
“Black people at Winthrop will probably be angry,” Byington wrote in the first sentence of the column.
And she was right.
As soon as the paper hit students’ hands, it sent an emotional ripple through campus that was so powerful it inspired some students to call for a rally. The strong feelings prompted university officials to hold a forum Thursday night to discuss the controversy. The forum was attended by an estimated 400 students.
Willie Lyles III, chairman of the university’s council of student leaders, said the column has galvanized the university’s black students—not against whites, but against the ideas presented in the column.
Lyles, who is black, said he was angered by some of Byington’s points, which he described as “insulting and kind of laughable.”
He particularly disagreed with Byington’s opinion on minority scholarships. Byington said that such “specialized opportunities” should be offered to other groups, whites included.
“I think she fails to realize why those minority scholarships are in place,” Lyles said. “People of Caucasian descent weren’t held in bondage until 40 years ago.”
Senior Jerri Grant said she picked up a copy of the paper around 9 a.m. Thursday.
“My first reaction was just, ‘Wow,’“ said Grant, who is black. “I was in complete shock.”
Staff has mixed views
The Johnsonian staff will meet tonight to discuss how the paper will respond to the campus’ reactions.
Editor-in-Chief Rebekah Woodson said she will write an editorial explaining the difference between an opinion piece and a news story. All letters to the editor about the column will be printed, she said, but an apology probably won’t be printed. Woodson said she knew the column would be offensive, but she believed Byington should get to have her say.
“I told Christine if she wanted to write about it and take it on, then go for it,” Woodson said. “When I read it, bells went off in my head . . . If I were African-American, I would be offended by it.”
As reported in a press release from university spokeswoman Rebecca Masters, junior psychology major Christine Byington has withdrawn from Winthrop. The news came in Tuesday, Nov. 8, through an e-mail statement after Byington filed necessary paperwork for departure.
Masters released the statement and said she wishes that Byington reconsider the departure, citing that “Winthrop University is strongly committed to being a campus where troubling issues can be discussed openly from all perspectives.” Masters went on to say that she believes that the university community, as well as society in general, will benefit from the free flow of ideas and open discussion of sometimes controversial issues.
Byington stirred up controversy with an opinion piece printed in the Nov. 2 issue of The Johnsonian. In her column, she explained her view that some Winthrop students, namely African-American, are overly argumentative and feel entitled as to what the country and university should be doing for them. She also criticized some scholarships and organizations exclusively for black students.
The column sparked heated debate among many students and prompted some 400 students and university officials to hold a forum in Tillman Hall on Nov. 3 after a scheduled talent show.
The biracial Byington served as a copy editor for The Johnsonian. She held the secretary position in the Psi Chi, the psychology honor society, and the Psychology Club. To be considered a member of the club, one must have a cumulative GPA of at least a 3.0 and rank in the upper 35% of their class in general scholarship. Byington also won the biology department’s achievement award for non-biology majors in the fall of 2004. She is one of 19 psychology majors on the President’s List.
Some professors are upset by the withdrawal of Byington. Assistant psychology professor Darren Ritzer said, “She is one of, if not the most talented students in our program.”