The Endless Struggle For Racial Equity - A 'Dream' Denied

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, students cheer while listening to members of the black student protest group Concern
FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, students cheer while listening to members of the black student protest group Concerned Student 1950 speak following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign at the university in Columbia, Mo. In the ouster of the Missouri’s president, leaders of student groups on other campuses dealing with racial strife see an opening to press their own university administrators for better treatment of black students. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

A hunger strike. A justice march. A wall of students chanting, fists raised.

If I didn't know any better, I'd think we'd gone back in time to the 1950s and '60s when our nation's young people bucked the status quo, stood up for what was right and ushered in change in our society.

But it's 2015 and passionate protesting is happening as we speak, on college campuses across the country. The recent news stories of students fighting back against racist practices and implicit bigotry at the University of Missouri and Yale University stand to remind us that racism is still alive and rampant - and that no gains have ever been made in this arena without a struggle.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates' breathtaking book, Between the World and Me, Coates tells his son that "the struggle is all we have." University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler knows this all too well. In order to get the University's system President Tim Wolfe to hear his and fellow students' cries for justice and equality, Butler had to stage a hunger strike, refusing food for seven long days, enduring pains that made him feel as if his body were "on fire."

But even that wasn't enough. It wasn't until the college's football team went on strike - potentially costing the University $1 million or more in fines - that President Wolfe acknowledged the culture of intolerance on his campus and stepped down.

Missouri and Yale are among the most sought-after schools in our country and rightly so. They graduate some of the nation's top journalists, lawyers, researchers and educators. They are incubators of progressive thinking and, in some cases, social change.

Yet if leaders at those and other top colleges and universities were really listening to their student bodies, they'd recognize that they're suffering from struggles of their own. Specifically, they've been "color-blind" for far too long.

The New York Times ran a front page article this week profiling Gus T. Ridgel, 89, one of the University of Missouri's first Black students, admitted in 1950. In the article, Ridgel said he was "surprised and disappointed by the racist incidents" at his alma mater, thinking that progress had surely been made since his pioneering days.

The fact is, though gains have been made since Ridgel was first admitted, the University of Missouri and Yale remain predominantly white institutions - not just in the make-up of their student bodies, but in their cultures. The integration that Ridgel and his peers started at Missouri has brought greater numbers of Black and Brown students (slowed, sadly, by short-sighted Supreme Court anti-integration policies) but, unfortunately, not greater understanding.

Longstanding research suggests to us that integration can work, but only when a large "minority" is assembled at an institution. Where there is a small percentage of students of color - as is the case at both Yale and Missouri - problems persist. Racial incidents disrupt harmony; micro-aggressions create rifts; discrimination deters student learning. Students suffer, and so do the schools.

Compare that with the findings in a recent Gallup poll that showed graduates of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) fare better financially, socially and in overall sense of purpose than peers who attend predominantly white institutions. Not only were the HBCU graduates more prepared for careers and life after graduation, the results of the poll showed that the Black graduates of those schools were "more likely than black graduates of other colleges [to have] had the support and experiential learning opportunities in college that ... are strongly related to graduates' well-being later in life."

This should come as no surprise. Coates writes in his book that the excellent HBCU he attended, Howard University - known to its alums as "The Mecca" - is "a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African people and inject it directly into the student body."

In other words, The Mecca was designed to harness the greatness of Black minds and bodies, not deny it, insult it, dismiss it or "otherize" it.

Predominantly white institutions have made some progress, no doubt, but they could learn a thing or two from The Mecca and HBCUs. At the National Urban Alliance (NUA) for Effective Education, we partner with schools across the country to support the building of academic and social emotional success of all students so that they realize and reach their exceptional learning potential. With our partners we laser in on Black, Brown and those students struggling with poverty, because we know it's crucial to provide them with the tools they need to engender confidence, fearless expectations and high intellectual performance. Just recently, we've started working on the post-secondary level with students and student-athletes - because the need for confidence-building is as great in college as it is in the early years. Maybe even greater.

Wouldn't it be something if all our institutions of higher learning were confidence-building bastions, and not "hostile and uncomfortable" places, as some students referred to Missouri?

The kind of culturally responsive pedagogies (CRP's) we practice at NUA should be a standard part of higher education curriculum for all students, so that empathy, critical thinking and self-reflection are engendered across the student body. Schools of higher education such as California State University at Northridge, are implementing progressive and evidence-based programs framed by CRP's and recent neuroscience research. CSUN's faculty and administrators recognize the instructional and emotional needs of their diverse and exceptional student bodies, and are providing leadership with sensitivity and aclarity.

If Yale had that kind of inclusive culture, perhaps more than 1,000 students wouldn't have had to march this week against racial insensitivity. If Missouri had it, perhaps Butler would not have gone hungry; and Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin might still be employed. We have work to do.

Wolfe, as he was leaving his post, said that the school - which is far from changed, even in the wake of the courageous students' actions - should "use my resignation to heal and start talking again."

But we have to move beyond conversations to policies, practices and action that enable all Americans to succeed. Changing demographics in our country demand that we expose all our children and young people to the rich diversity of cultures, languages, socioeconomics and perspectives the United States is blessed to have.

It's time to talk less and act more. As the young people say - and are showing us with their actions - "The struggle is real." The need is urgent.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org