A dive into the treatment of black people and people of color at the largest evangelical university in the world.
By Caleb McCusker
If you’re someone that calls themselves a Christian, or someone who is a student at Liberty University, or both, you might know the bible verse from Acts chapter 17 verse 26. That verse, written by Luke, tells us that “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth, and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” Liberty’s men’s basketball team wore a patch on their jerseys for the entirety of the 2020–21 basketball season following a summer of nationwide protests and riots. You might also not know that Liberty’s student population is only 14.6% black or African-American. Liberty represents 76 countries worldwide, one of those being the Democratic Republic of Congo, the former home of Liberty senior Noha Ngassaki.
Liberty University and its relationship with its black students is a complicated one to say the least. Under old leadership, the school had often been negatively portrayed, for fair or unfair reasons, when it came to its relationship with black people and people of color. Former school president Jerry Falwell Jr., one of the most polarizing figures in our country, only strained that relationship further when he put out a tweet in May of 2020 with current Governor Ralph Northam in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan hood. The intention behind the tweet according to Falwell Jr. was to simply remind people of Governor Northam’s “racist” past, but all it did was in turn make people question whether or not Falwell Jr. really cared about black people and his black students in particular. The tweet caused plenty of former and current black Liberty students to speak out against Falwell Jr., with many calling for him to resign.
A change.org petition started shortly after the tweet surfaced, and over 40,000 people signed in an effort to bring in new leadership. The ill-advised tweet also came at an unfortunate time, as thousands across the country were engaging in Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations following a viral video showing what appeared to be a black man (George Floyd) having his life taken at the hands of a police officer in Minnesota.
The perception, whether fair or unfair, is the perception. At least from the people on the outside of Liberty– so what is it like on the campus of Liberty? How are black students really, truly treated at this school? I spoke with a few students, both current and former, at Liberty to find out.
The aforementioned Ngassaki, however, hasn’t noticed a difference in the way he’s been treated. “I would say I have not been treated differently because of the way I look, I think it’s been pretty normal for me,” he said.
His perception may or may not be reality, but it could be hard to get a real understanding of that perception without knowing a little bit of the context behind his story. Ngassaki’s life and upbringing has been anything but normal, as he was born in Africa in 2005, moved to America in 2015, and was a freshman at Liberty in 2019, having just turned 14 years old a month prior to being in college. He graduated high school in Charlotte, North Carolina at just 13.
It was just prior to his sophomore year in 2020 when the controversy around Falwell jr. arose, but Ngassaki didn’t think much of it. “I was still pretty new in my faith at the time (of the Falwell Jr. situation), but I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Ngassaki said. “I know people made a big deal of it and thought he was super racist or insensitive, but I honestly didn’t care. I don’t think he (Falwell Jr.) cared if I was black or not, but clearly some people thought he did.”
He is certainly right about one thing– some people did care. A number of black students and student-athletes left following the tweet from Falwell Jr.. Two black football players (Kei-Trel Clark & Tayvion Land) and a black women’s basketball player (Asia Todd) all announced their intentions to leave their respective sports teams at Liberty following the tweet. All 3 of the athletes were somewhat vague and cryptic in their reason for the announcements, but it wouldn’t really take a detective to figure out why they left.
The whole point of this article is to find out first-hand experiences from black students at Liberty in how they were treated by their peers. Ngassaki did acknowledge that he was talked to differently than his white classmates were, but that he doesn’t necessarily think it was because of an inherent racial bias.
“I definitely noticed a difference in how white people treated me versus black, I think some white people liked the idea of having the ‘token black friend’, especially since there aren’t a lot of black people here anyway,” Ngassaki said. “At the same time though, it could’ve just been my age as well. I don’t really go around flaunting my age to everybody I see, but early on in my time at Liberty, I think I just gave off a vibe that I was younger than everyone else. So it definitely could’ve been that instead of some sort of racial bias.”
Ngassaki, like everyone else, whether black or white, has had a unique experience at Liberty. His experience may or may not be similar to someone else who looks like him, but I think it’s inherently harder to make a judgment from his experiences simply because he is probably unlike any other student to have walked the campus of Liberty University.
One last thing I asked Ngassaki before the conclusion of our interview– what can Liberty improve upon when it comes to its treatment of black students? His answer was an opinion, but an unpopular one at that.
“Honestly I think the best way to move forward and improve the relationship between black people and Liberty is to just not talk about it,” Ngassaki said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t acknowledge our skin color, because God created us uniquely and beautifully. But I don’t think it’s a super important thing that we have this conversation like ‘oh, he’s black or she’s black and they go to Liberty. I wonder how they are treated’. I think our school is probably like most others– some black people might experience racism or discrimination, but at the end of the day, it’s 2022. We’re all equal, let’s just move forward and stop having these conversations.”
The next person I spoke to is someone who is a bit more outspoken about current social and political issues than others. Kaden Rucker, a 2022 graduate of Liberty has never shied away from speaking his mind and being honest about his feelings. I’m going to be fully transparent with my audience here– Kaden is one of my closest friends and has been since I became a freshman at Liberty in 2019. Him and I have many differences between us– one being that he is mixed (half-black & half-white) and I am not.
I distinctly remember him telling me in 2021 that he “was worried for people who didn’t see a problem with the saying ‘blue lives matter’”. To put it simply: Rucker is not one to keep his feelings to himself, for better or for worse. So what does a mixed, outspoken, liberal man think of his treatment after four years at Liberty? His answer might surprise you.
“I would say my experience (as a mixed person) was a relatively positive one. I never faced any sort of discrimination to my face, but being constantly around mostly white people did make me feel like I stood out more,” Rucker said. “I definitely learned more into understanding myself as a black person as a result though, so I can’t really say it was a negative experience for me in that regard.”
Well that’s certainly good to hear, and perhaps something you might not have even expected, especially coming from someone who will tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help him God.
Despite this answer though, there’s still work that needs to be done in that front in Rucker’s eyes. That change actually starts at the curriculum at the school, with Rucker suggesting Liberty requires students to take racial sensitivity courses.
“I think (as far as improvement) that making all students take an educative course that focuses on racial and cultural differences of students of different colors,” Rucker said. “That way everyone has a chance to at least learn and try to get educated about what people of color go through on a daily basis. Making such a course mandatory like the Bible courses could vastly improve how the massive white population interacts with their colored counterparts.”
Something that stood out to me that might have also stood out to you from this quote is the use of the word “massive” when Rucker talks about the white population at Liberty. The overall white population of the school is roughly 50%, meaning about half of the students are white and half of them are not (Thanks Captain Obvious).
So out of the two gentlemen we’ve talked to thus far, they both have differing points of view when it comes to improving the relationship between the school and people of color. Ngassaki thinks we should essentially ignore the conversations and embrace everyone for who they are in God’s eyes, whereas Rucker thinks Liberty should take a hands-on approach and attack the issue head-on. Is there a wrong answer? I won’t give my personal opinion on it, but all I will say is that Scripture calls us to be a voice for the voiceless and to stand up for what is right. So if you believe having these conversations is the right thing and you feel convicted about it, do it. If not, don’t. That’s just my two cents on the matter.
One other layer to the relationship between Liberty and its black students is the police. I don’t mean the Lynchburg Police Department, I’m talking about the Liberty University Police Department. Matt Alcantar, a junior at Liberty who is mixed (half-black & half-latino), claims he was racially-profiled by a LUPD officer last semester.
“I was at the volleyball courts with a couple of my boys who were both white, and I remember a (LUPD) cop car pulling up and stopping right by the court we were on,” Alcantar recalls. “I remember one of them making a joke like they were there for me, and we just laughed. Next thing I see is this officer walking up to us and he’s staring me down, and he asks to see my Flames Pass,” Alcantar said with a smirk.
“I took it out and he just kind of looked at it and then looked at me for a few seconds. I asked him why he needed mine and not either of my friends, and he sort of paused and then told me that they were looking for somebody on campus that looked like me,” Alcantar said. “But here’s the thing, I’ve been on this campus three years now and I have never met nor seen anybody that looks like me. So why would they say that?” Alcantar said with a laugh.
Alcantar’s sense of humor has never lacked, even in light of a seemingly serious issue. For better or for worse, he’ll do what he can to put a smile on his face and on yours.
He’s not the only one who experienced this, Liberty senior YaKobe Tabar had a similar encounter his sophomore year.
“I was walking to my car in the pit (parking lot) one night and there was a LUPD officer that was parked there, and he just flashed his brights at me and slowly pulled off in the direction I was walking. When I got to my car, he ended up driving off,” Tabar said.
He doesn’t believe his skin color had anything to do with it, however.
“I have a bunch of white friends who tell me about officers doing that stuff to them in that area, so I doubt it was because I’m black,” Tabar said. “Honestly, I’ve been treated so graciously and kindly here by everyone. There hasn’t been one time where I felt I was looked at differently because of my race.”
Their stories are a true reality for some people of color around the country, but is this sort of profiling exclusive to just Liberty? It’s unlikely. But to Alcantar, to Ngassaki, to Rucker, to Tabar, it probably doesn’t matter. What they see in the news or hear about in these stories like this could be their perception, whether that is based in fear or based in truth.
So in this particular case, how does Alcantar think it could be fixed?
“I don’t even think I could get into all of that, man. I just look back on it now and laugh. But listen, we can all do our part. These types of things have so many moving parts, there’s really not just one magic thing that’s suddenly going to make racism or all of the problems within it go away,” Alcantar said. “I think at the end of the day as Christians all we can do is just pray. Sin is never going to go away in this fallen world, so it’s going to continue to be an unfortunate reality, and I don’t think that just applies to people who look like me. Everybody can fall victim to racism, or in the broader picture–sin,” Alcantar remarked.
Alcantar is absolutely right about the last part, sin is always going to be a problem in this fallen world and there’s only so much we can do. At the end of the day, sin is always going to be there. It’s been there since I was born and it will continue to be until the day Jesus returns.
Scripture tells us that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, and thus each one of us will have different experiences. I think this article has shown just how different each experience everybody might have, even as a person of color at the same school.
Jerry Falwell Jr. is no longer president of the university, he hasn’t been for over two years, and with his departure, Is Liberty a safe space for black students and people of color? I believe so. However, not everyone’s perceptions are the objective truth or reality, and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can all get along.