When Jerry Falwell, Jr. tweeted a picture of a face mask with an image of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam dressing up in blackface, he was making a political statement about the state’s prescribed COVID-19 restrictions. However, African Americans in Falwell’s employ at Liberty University didn’t see it that way. While Falwell has apologized and removed the tweet from his account, the culturally insensitive move has been called the “cherry on top” of a problem of systemic racism at the Christian university. Three staff members have resigned their positions at the school in response to the incident, and one former staff member, LeeQuan McLaurin, has even started a GoFundMe campaign to help other black staffers leave the institution.
Calling his effort “LUnderground Railroad,” McLaurin seeks to “help staff and faculty at LU suffering from racial trauma and unable to leave due to financial restraints.”
The description for the fundraiser goes on to explain the economic situation in Lynchburg, Virginia, where the university is located. McLaurin provides information about the disproportionate number of black people who are unemployed in Lynchburg compared to the white population. Lynchburg as a whole has one of the highest rates of poverty in the state, and Liberty is one of the main employers of the city. McLaurin believes Liberty has used its financial prowess in the city to its advantage and others’ detriment. “The institution will often trust in, and has ultimately abused, their financial influence on the Lynchburg area in order to ignore their responsibility for racial and workplace trauma that is inflicted on BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, or People of Color] employees,” he writes.
So far, three Liberty staff members who are people of color have resigned following Falwell’s culturally insensitive tweet: McLaurin, who served as director of diversity retention; Keyvon Scott, an online admissions counselor; and Christopher House, an online instructor for the university’s school of communications and the arts. McLaurin believes there are more BIPOC staff members at the college who would resign if they had the financial means and the freedom to do so, which is why he set up the GoFundMe campaign:
Due to a strong culture of fear that exists within the university, many employees are afraid to speak out and share their experiences (https://bit.ly/FearCulture ). Even more are afraid to leave due to fear that they would be unable to financially support their families. Several employees have attempted to file reports, but since the university often refuses to acknowledge the existence of very real things such as systemic racism, they have either been ignored or faced retaliatory consequences.
An open letter written by “African-American Evangelical pastors, ministry leaders, and former athletes who are alumni of Liberty University” posted to Change.org on June 1, 2020 also indicated the problem of racial trauma has been going on for “several years.” The letter’s 35 signatories describe Falwell’s “infantile,” “divisive,” and “incendiary rhetoric” as being un-Christlike and detrimental to those who are associated with the institution:
For several years, you have said and defended inappropriate statements that represent Liberty and our faith very poorly. You have belittled staff, students and parents, you have defended inappropriate behaviors of politicians, encouraged violence, and disrespected people of other faiths. We were all taught at Liberty about the sanctity of life (Jeremiah 1:5) and the dignity of every human – made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and yet, you have repeatedly violated and misrepresented core Christian principles (Romans 12:9-21) through brash tweets and statements that harm our Christian witness.
While students, professors, and alumni have urged you to alter your rhetoric and repent, sadly nothing has changed. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Liberty University is a family-owned organization and you are the sole authority. The Board of Trustees has no power to influence your behavior or hold you accountable.
In his apology post on Monday, June 8th, Falwell said he spoke to “African American LU leaders and alumni” about their concerns over the tweet and that he now understands “that by tweeting an image to remind all of the governor’s racist past,” he had “refreshed the trauma.”
I have deleted the tweet and apologize for any hurt my effort caused, especially within the African American community. (Part 3/3)
— Jerry Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) June 8, 2020
In an article by Washington Post, another African American employee at Liberty intimated she experiences the same fear of retaliation if she speaks up about the culture at the university. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the employee indicated she didn’t find Falwell’s apology for the tweet sincere, either. “It seemed like once donors said I’m not going to put money into your university, that’s when he says, ‘I’m sorry, I apologize,’” she told the Washington Post. “It’s too late!”
Scott, the latest employee to resign from Liberty due to Falwell’s tweet, wrote “I cannot in good faith encourage people to attend a school with racially insensitive leadership and culture. It is a poor reflection of what Jesus Christ requires of us.”
‘Culture of Fear’ Reported for Multiple Years
Last year, a Liberty alumnus turned journalist published an expose on the “culture of fear” that faculty and staff at the Christian school describe. As ChurchLeaders reported last year, the article by Brandon Ambrosino (published in Politico Magazine) paints a dismal picture. Open dissent isn’t allowed at Liberty, Ambrosino writes, noting that only law professors can receive tenure. Nondisclosure agreements are common for employees and board members, who must receive permission from Falwell’s office before speaking to the media. “Fear is probably [Falwell’s] most powerful weapon,” one source says.
In 2016, former Liberty board member Mark DeMoss said he was forced to resign due to his opposition to Falwell’s endorsement of then candidate Donald Trump.