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Outrage ensues when four white students win MLK Jr. Day essay contest at University of Montana

No black students participated in the contest

People march in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade on Jan. 19, 2019, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The University of Montana has very few black students. Which is understandable, because the state of Montana has very few black people.

This demographic profile created some issues, however, when the school sponsored a Martin Luther King Jr. Day essay contest and four white students were announced as the winners. Students and other observers (most of them white themselves) got very upset.

"Jesus Christ this is shameful and embarrassing, and I say that as a pasty ass white girl," wrote Nika Martignoni on a Facebook post announcing the contest winners. "I'm cringing for you because clearly none of you who ran this contest were raised with the good grace to do the cringing yourselves. You should be ashamed of yourselves."

The fact that white students were the only winners wasn't due to racism by the judges, though. It turns out, no black students entered the contest at all — a revelation that led to another category of public criticism, aimed at the university's lack of scrutiny about why no black students had participated.

"Why was there no curiosity from the panel, the head of the department, or others involved, about the absence of black participants?" wrote Laura Nigh, who is black, on Facebook. "Having grown up in all white spaces, I often avoided events such as this because I knew the purpose was a performative gesture from the administration. ... Rather than sellout/compromise myself, I would avoid the performance."

Adding to the fire was the fact that the MLK Jr. Day committee chairman, who is also the director of the African American Studies program, is white.

The university's Facebook post about the contest winners was eventually taken down, as the winners had begun receiving threats from people online, through no fault of their own.

Heather MacDonald of The Wall Street Journal noted in an opinion piece that as much as the university may be lacking diversity, it actually contains a slightly higher percentage of black students in its population than the state has in its population. The university's undergraduate population is 79 percent white and 1 percent black, while the state is 89 percent white and 0.6 percent black.

"The essay submission rate for white undergraduates was 0.1%," MacDonald wrote. "If the school's population of black students had submitted at the same rate, 0.08% of the essay contest submissions would have been from black writers. That's essentially zero, which is, in fact, how many such submissions were received."

The university called criticism of the contest results both "fair" and "troubling."

"Yes. These students are white. But the color of their skin does not preclude them from submitting an essay, publicly honoring MLK or working toward equality," read a post on the University of Montana's Facebook page.

One last thing…
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