Musab Hussein, an accounting major at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, showing his university ID after he was denied a laptop rental. Credit: Courtesy Musab Hussein

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Musab Hussein just needs to complete one more class to graduate from the University of Minnesota with his accounting degree. With a midterm exam coming up, he had to secure a laptop. 

In his family, laptops are in short supply: Five siblings in distance learning share three computers. So when Musab’s advisor told him he could rent a laptop from the school, he and his younger brother headed to Hanson Hall, home of the Carlson School of Management’s undergraduate program, to check one out.

But when he got there, the staff member on duty refused to rent it to him. Instead, Musab said, he swore at him, gave him the middle finger, ordered him out of the building and called campus police. 

The University says the incident is being investigated. “The actions described by the student are not representative of our values, and undermine efforts to make the Carlson School a more welcoming, inclusive place for all,” a Carlson representative said in a statement.

But students say the incident is indicative of a pattern of racism, discrimination, and microaggressions that Black Carlson students have endured. 

‘You do not look like a U of M student’

Musab, a senior at the Carlson School, is the oldest son in a Somali family. When he graduates in May, he hopes to land an accounting job to help provide for his parents and siblings. He had taken classes in Hanson Hall for nearly four years, and for one of those years, he even worked in the computer lab. On March 1, he arrived at Hanson Hall in a good mood. In the computer lab, he printed out his notes to use for his open notebook exam, and approached the desk to rent a computer. He asked the staff member on duty if he had been the person who hired him for his computer lab job.

The staff member became suspicious, saying he had never hired him or seen him before. Musab searched his email on his phone to confirm the name of a different Carlson staffer who had hired him. The staff member didn’t seem to believe that either, Musab said.

The failed small talk didn’t matter, Musab decided. He was there to rent a laptop for his exam. He presented his university ID so he could check one out. But the staff member balked.

“He said, ‘I don’t trust you at all, I don’t think you’re a U student or a Carlson student,’” Musab said. “What the hell is this guy talking about? I’m getting my UCard, you can see my picture, you can see my name.”

But even with the university ID, the staff member refused to rent him the laptop.

“He said, ‘No, you look suspicious, you do not look like a U of M student,’” said Musab’s brother, Lukman Hussein. “He just looked at us with distrust and disdain.”

The Hussein brothers pressed the staff member, pointing out that Musab pays tuition to access resources like laptops and that his test was due that night.

Then, Lukman said, the staff member’s demeanor changed. “Get the fuck out of my building,” he told them. Lukman started filming the interaction on his phone.

“That’s when everything triggered,” Musab said. “This is a building I take six classes in. Hanson Hall is a home to me, a second home. It’s my safe space.” With so many siblings at home learning remotely, his house is often “chaos,” so he comes to Hanson Hall to study, complete his homework, and watch Zoom lectures. “He told me to get the fuck out of a building that I honestly treasure.”

As the brothers started shouting and cursing back, the staff member threw the middle finger at them, emerged from behind his plexiglass divider, and yelled for security. He also closed the door to the room with the printer containing Musab’s notes.

The staff member gave Musab Hussein the middle finger. Credit: Musab Hussein Twitter

“I was astonished, I was surprised, I was bewildered,” Musab said. “He can see that I’m a student. Why is he calling security?”

The staff member, a computer technician, could not be reached for comment. The university declined to confirm the staffer’s identity. 

Musab and Lukman left the building, retreating to the safety of their car. Musab’s class notes sat behind in the printer tray.

But seconds after getting in the car, someone opened the door. It was two officers with the University of Minnesota Police Department.

The first question the officers asked, Musab said, was whether they were smoking weed in the car. For Musab, an introvert who says he suffers from anxiety and depression and avoids all possible interaction with police, the situation was extremely frightening.

“I wasn’t in a good state,” he said. “I’m shaking, my legs feel weird.”

He tried to explain what had happened to the police, but said they didn’t seem interested in listening to his side of the story. One of the officers went inside, saying she would retrieve his papers. Musab went inside the bathroom to try to calm his anxiety. The officer in the building spoke with the Carlson staff member. Lukman, who stayed in the car, overheard a conversation over the radio between the two officers, who he said were discussing whether the brothers were under the influence of narcotics.

“The cop honestly had the assumption I was on a drug even after finding out the situation,” Musab said. “I thought that police officers can understand, oh this person is pissed off, they are racially profiled.”

Musab never got his notes or the laptop. He failed his midterm exam.

‘That trust has been shattered’

After uploading his videos and explanation to Twitter and Instagram, fellow Carlson students reached out right away expressing support—including Jael Kerandi, former student body president of the University of Minnesota, and members of the Carlson Business Board, the Carlson School’s student government.

As footage of the incident and Musab’s story started to gain traction on social media, Carlson issued a brief statement on Twitter March 3, promising an investigation.

The Business Board wrote a public letter to the dean of the school the following day, demanding transparency and the firing of the staff member.

“We acknowledge the pain, anger, and fear that many Business Board members, Carlson School students, University students, faculty and staff, and others have felt as a result of the incident last week,” wrote Carlson Dean Sri Zaheer and Associate Dean Raj Singh in a March 8 response letter.  They were unable to provide details about the ongoing investigation, they wrote, but promised equity training for staff and updates about the diversity and inclusion work begun over the summer. “We will take any necessary actions to prevent something like this from happening again.”

That same day, Black undergraduate students at Carlson sent another letter to the Carlson School administration.

“We are disheartened, disappointed, dispirited, yet not surprised,” they wrote, noting that many Black Carlson students had experienced racist acts and microaggressions. “We have tolerated far too much discrimination and disrespect at the expense of our own dollar.” Students had made the choice to place their trust in the Carlson community, they wrote. “That trust has steadily declined and now has been shattered.” The letter called for an academic extension for Musab, as well as consequences for the staff member.

It’s because of that letter, Musab said, that the university made an accommodation for him to complete his coursework. With his failing grade on the midterm, it would have been difficult for him to pass the class—the last one he needed to graduate in May. Now, he’ll complete his final coursework through an independent study.

At Carlson, 18 percent of students are people of color, and even fewer are Black. “In all my classes, I’m the only Black face there,” Musab said. This wasn’t his first time experiencing racial profiling on campus. Before the pandemic, he remembers a security guard asking for his ID as he was studying, while not challenging a white student studying nearby.

He’s grateful for the support he’s received from students. But the university’s response has been slow and only after student pressure, he said. He wants the school to fire the staff member, mandate racial sensitivity training, and make it easier to report racist incidents.

After graduating in May, he hopes to get a salaried accounting job where he can provide for his parents and siblings, and move the family to a better neighborhood. Later in his career, he hopes to create a company to share knowledge of accounting and financial literacy with the East African community.

But the laptop altercation has changed how he feels about his soon-to-be alma mater.

“I wanted to leave Carlson a proud student,” he said. “But right now I’m leaving Carlson with this racist incident on my mind.”

Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.