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What is going on at American universities? An issue many thought had been dealt with years ago is again rearing its ugly head: race.

At a time when U.S. university campuses are more ethnically diverse than ever, protests linked to race relations have been breaking out everywhere from UCLA to Yale, with students demanding that school administrations treat instances of racism more seriously. It's as if we're suddenly back in the 1950s.

The University of Missouri has become the poster school for everything that is wrong with the way colleges are dealing with the matter. A few years ago, two white students were caught scattering cotton balls in front of the Black Culture Centre on campus. Instead of being kicked out, they were allowed to plead guilty to littering. Since then, several black students reported being subjected to racist slurs, yet the administration did nothing. Frustrated by the unwillingness of school officials to deal with a festering crisis, a campus protest movement called #ConcernedStudent1950 sprang up. The name is a nod to the year the first black student was allowed on the school's campus. The group demanded university president Tim Wolfe be shown the door. Nothing happened. Only when the football team said it wasn't going to play until Mr. Wolfe resigned did the school's board take action. With potentially millions in lost revenue at stake, (U.S. college football is a multibillion-dollar business) he was forced to step down on Monday.

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This week, the protest itself became a national sideshow when student activists, and even some professors, attempted to block the news media from taking pictures and chronicling the protesters' activities. The group had declared the public area they had taken over on campus a "safe place" and off limits to reporters. When one student journalist tried to exert his First Amendment right to occupy the same public area as the demonstrators, a communications professor at the school, Melissa Click, shouted out: "Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here."

Maybe these people lost the memo: The media are there to help trumpet your cause. Prof. Click has now been branded an academic fascist by some commentators – not a great thing to have on the résumé when you're a professor of mass media (she later apologized for her actions).

The University of Missouri isn't alone. At UCLA, there was an uproar recently when white students showed up in blackface at a rapper-themed frat party. At the University of Mississippi, a student was caught hanging a noose around the statue of the school's first black student. When Yale University sent a mass e-mail warning students against "racially insensitive" Halloween costumes, a white professor at the school, Erika Christakis, sent out a missive of her own bemoaning political correctness.

It took only minutes for Prof. Christakis to become the focal point of anger that had been brewing at the Ivy League school for some time about the lack of action taken in response to incidents of racism on campus. One involved a frat party that had a sign posted outside: "White Girls Only." Now professors and school officials are being verbally accosted by students, demanding more be done to combat the problem.

No one seems sure what it is we are witnessing. Are these the random actions of a few insensitive, alcohol-fuelled boobs, or are they indicative of a broader and more worrying trend? For what it's worth, the U.S. Department of Education reported 146 cases of racial harassment on college and university campuses in fiscal 2014-15 – down from the 177 the previous year, but up from the 96 in 2008-09. Those figures, however, likely don't reflect the true numbers as the vast majority of incidents are never brought to the attention of authorities.

My guess is it likely has something to do with the increased numbers of African-Americans and other minorities on college campuses. With greater numbers comes greater strength to speak out, to demand their issues be heard. Activists at the University of Missouri (and elsewhere) have likely been buoyed, too, by the #BlackLivesMatter movement that leaped into the American consciousness after the August, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, two hours east of the school campus.

Whatever the reason, the protests are an unsettling throwback to a distressing time in U.S. history, one the country must do everything it can to avoid revisiting.

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