Does Your University Reinforce Harmful Notions Of Race?


Minority college enrollment over the last decade has skyrocketed, this trend will continue as the demographics of the high school student population continues to shift towards a more diverse pool of graduates. Black and Hispanic post-secondary enrollment has grown considerably over the last decade as well. Black student college enrollment has increased by about 5 percentage points since 1976, reaching its peak in 2011. We also know that White college enrollment is continuing to decrease. With these trends, the 2015 protests by students of color across various campuses in the United States should be viewed as an inevitable occurrence.

As more and more students of color continue to enroll in college, a critical mass of diverse students will, and rightfully so, demand that business as usual is no longer acceptable across some American universities. Individuals that run universities must address the tangible and non-tangible marks that invite, perpetuate and exacerbate race-related issues and negative racial attitudes. All universities will be affected by the population demographic shifts going forward. Universities should be pro-active in preparing for this shift.

Historically, institutions of higher education have not consistently been sites of leadership in the quest towards racial equality. Despite this history, I believe in the ability of college campuses to be vehicles of racial liberation that lead us to better outcomes for communities of color in the 21st century. I believe this, in spite of the historical racism that has defined higher education (See: desegregation) and the current realities of race relations across college campuses.

Research shows that most students of color will experience racially insensitive comments while on campus. In interviewing students for my documentary "Remixing Colorblind," I found that students of color are adept at navigating through racial slurs and racist comments on campus, though this should not be something that is expected on campus. Add to the foray- cultural isolation, stigma, and powerlessness, amongst other things and subsequently, you get racial unrest on campus. By the time universities make headlines due to race-based incidents, we know that a series of things had to take place first, that are far more pressing than simply racially insensitive comments.

As opponents of race-based affirmative action continue to mobilize to abolish the practice, I contend that race-based affirmative action is not only necessary but that there is another step that the affirmative-action movement needs to take. In addition to making sure students of color are enrolled, the movement could also work to create campuses that are culturally competent educational and workplace environments. It is imperative that universities take affirmative action to redress climates that has only been suitable for all-White or majority-White student populations for so long.

It is going to take a concerted effort on the part of individuals that run institutions (including faculty and students) to be proactive in addressing the structural racism embedded in the fabric of too many campuses across this nation. To deny this is a cultural logic that refuses to acknowledge the material effects of historical and present-day racism. Whether you are at a predominately White institution or an institution with a critical mass of students of color, consider these three things:

What attitudes, values and beliefs are reinforced on your campus? Campus culture is not only reinforced by what one can see, but also by what one does not see. For a student of color walking through the halls of many universities, this is the reality- only portraits of all White figures held in high esteem hang on walls, mission statements tout diversity but not in tangible terms, curriculum refuses to address race, a faculty body and administration absent of any people of color and so on and so forth. These things reinforce notions of cultural value and reflect the non-tangible and tangible attitudes and values that students are absorbing while on campus. Add to the mix, required class textbooks that are all too often written by White men or only learning about authors of color in ethnicity or ace specific courses (I.e- Black studies). These are just a few examples, but the symbolism of what is absent speaks volumes.

This is why it was so important to so many to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol building. No, the removal of a symbol such as a flag or the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University does not automatically dismantle racism, racist notions or racial insensitivity. However, those symbols are persuasive in perpetuating a particular climate and/or reinforcing a particular ideology. Universities need to ask, do we actually care about diversity? If so, your only focus should not be the number of minority students you are able to enroll but the number of ways your campus climate is reproducing harmful notions of what and who matters.

What is the make-up of the administration and faculty body? If a university claims to embrace diversity yet, refuses to diversify their faculty or administration, then the perception that one cares about diversity and the reality of the state of the university are at odds. This is not lost on students. Only 5.5% of faculty in America are Black and a significant number of those faculty are employed at Historically Black Universities.

Dedication to employment of people of color works in tandem with the attitudes, values and beliefs that symbolically shape the university, and subsequently the experience that students of color will have on campus. Too often, the only time a student (if ever) will be instructed by a Black faculty member is if they take a course in Africana studies or something of the like, further perpetuating racialized notions students (as well as faculty and administration) may hold. Often times, a knee-jerk rebuttal in defense of the lack of Black faculty is that Black people are not applying for other positions or "we can't find any Black faculty for X." The solution is simple, if you care about diversity, try harder to recruit and retain faculty in these areas. You may have to pay them more, you may have to hire in clusters or you may have to offer a competitive benefits package. More informative questions to ask are, what attitudes do hiring committees hold that are hindering the employment of faculty of color? What implicit biases are enmeshed in the tenure process? Why are we not inspiring students of color to be educators? We need to take affirmative action in diversifying who gets to be employed and tenured and who does not. Universities can start by diversifying doctorate student cohorts as well.

Is your curriculum dedicated to dealing with race? Basic courses such as philosophy or math are often required courses that all students must take to get a degree. Universities view these courses as necessities for college students, however given the racial history of America and current state of American racial realities, a course on race, civility and justice should be just as essential to the core curriculum. This is the third area where universities are failing to take the opportunity to be 21st century sites of leadership in the fight towards racial equity in America. These steps benefit not just students of color, but the entire student body. If a student completes four years of college without ever having to confront the realities of race, how race operates in the 21st century and/or the histories of racial groups outside of their own, that student is incomplete.

Many students are increasingly coming from segregated neighborhoods and high schools. Therefore, too many universities are missing an opportunity in the classroom itself where students can inform their notions around race intellectually or confront the prejudices to which they have become accustomed. Too many instructors are unable or unwilling to address these areas comfortably in the classroom. And, they do not have to become equipped to address these issues because curriculum is not changing to demand the development of this expectation. Affirmative action needs to be taken here.

Too many universities are failing to address the persistent problem of race even as the student population is increasingly diversifying. In many ways, far too many universities are perpetuating racial hostilities at every level of the collegiate process.

I believe and I want universities to be places that lead the corrective practices and implementation of culturally competent spaces into the 21st century, not places that exacerbate and perpetuate racial inequality. I believe it can be done. It needs to be done.