Black Students Don’t Matter

The protests at Mizzou and Yale are proof that America's college campuses don't intend to achieve real diversity.

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Neither Black students nor Black academic lives matter. That’s the way the American higher education system wants it: American colleges and universities were not originally designed with Black folks in mind, and they have no genuine desire to achieve real diversity.

We are desired for assessment reports demonstrating “increasing diversity” and glossy brochures to prove that colleges are the fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream, over and over again. But once on campus, HSWI’s (Historically and Still White Institutions) give zero fucks about Black academics’ voices, experiences, needs, and safety. This has been made clear every time we read stories on social media, as we examine the research on racial disparities in academe, as we listen to the experiences of Black students and faculty, and as we review the headlines from 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. 

In 2014, Marybeth Gasman, a professor and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions, highlighted some of the racist incidents that garnered national headlines:

A San Jose State University student was attacked for months with racial slurs and the display of a Confederate flag.

The University of Alabama had a racially segregated Greek system until recently, with Black students suffering widespread discrimination.

At Harvard University, Black students created a Tumblr campaign, “I, Too, Am Harvard,” because they felt their voices weren’t being heard.  Similar campaigns went down at Brown, Fordham, Columbia, and the University of Michigan.

Students at UCLA released a YouTube video, The Black Bruins, exposing the inequities experienced by Black men on campus, and UCLA Black law students created a social media campaign to show the discrimination they face on a daily basis.

The Asian-American chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was attacked with racist and sexist slurs for not cancelling classes during cold, snowy weather.

An Arizona State University fraternity celebrated the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday with White students in “gangsta wear” drinking from hollowed-out watermelon cups and throwing up gang signs.

And then Ferguson happened. We saw a lot of activism on campuses after the Eric Garner incident. We saw walk-outs, die-ins, and other forms of protest at the University of Texas Austin, Columbia, Princeton, American University, Hampton, Howard, Temple, Missouri State, Penn State, Hofstra, Emory and other campuses around the country. #BlackLivesMatter took hold of campus life

“As Black students at an elite university, our Black bodies are not safeguarded from police brutality,” said Wilglory Tanjong, a Princeton undergrad and activist, who best captured the sentiment. “We are one interaction, one bullet away from becoming another hashtag. When a Black man is murdered on-camera, and nothing happens, it is time to end any spirit of complacency.”

Following in the footsteps of previous generations, Black students have refused to sit silently, to be the happy brochure picture; instead they are using their voices and their bodies to demand justice throughout society, including their own places of learning. They are asking why the truths are seemingly omitted from the rosy white picture. 

The top tier colleges in this country are 75 percent White. A 2013 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that racial polarization on campuses has grown more pronounced since the mid-1990s, with White students being overrepresented at selective colleges, and Blacks being overrepresented at less selective institutions.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 80 percent of full-time college professors are White, and have been so for the past 30 years, in spite of all the affirmative action and diversity programs out there. And there’s a stark mismatch between the rapidly diversifying student body and the professoriate.

According to the American Council on Education, close to 90 percent of recently hired college presidents are … you guessed it … White.

Looking around, Black students at predominantly White institutions see a sea of whiteness and they are drowning. They see diversity without equity is racism personified. And it is clear that in 2015, Black students are demanding more from us all.

At Yale, more than 1,000 people made their voices heard in an event last week called the March of Resilience, where students of color and their allies showed unity and strength in the face of ongoing racial problems on campus, including controversy over Halloween costumes, word of a “White girls only party,” and countless more incidents. For many students, the march was part of their ongoing protest of harassment and racist comments from all levels of the campus community, and a reaction to the institution’s continuing neglect of these issues.

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, better known as Mizzou, the most recent example of campus racism fostered protests, when Payton Head, president of the Missouri Students Association posted on Facebook about being accosted on campus by men hollering a racist slur at him from a truck. Graduate student Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike on November 2, vowing not to eat until Mizzou President Wolfe resigned. Last Saturday, social media exploded with the news that a group of Mizzou football players joined Butler’s protest, boycotting all football-related events until Wolfe was ousted. The Twitter account of coach Gary Pinkel tweeted a photo of the team, saying that he supported his players.

Despite bipartisan dismissal of these organized protests as mere reactions to headline events at Mizzou and Yale, these growing nationwide campus protests are the natural result of systemically racist practices and policies, and the entrenched whiteness throughout American higher education. Students are snatching the diversity mask and wig, revealing America’s colleges and universities to be the same old white face of Jim Crow.  Students are shedding those cosmetic diversity brochures, replacing the lies and distortion where their truths, one that reveals a world where students and faculty of color are not welcome and even when they find their way on campus they are told over and over again, “You don’t belong here.”

The irony is that many predominantly White colleges and universities appear to have the signs of progressive campus cultures with healthy race relations, especially in comparison to their 1950s predecessors. As Marybeth Gasman has noted, most universities have all the ingredients needed to produce a post-racial promise land—diversity offices, glossy brochures and admissions materials with a sprinkling of multiracial faces, cultural centers, administrative diversity positions, and diversity programs infused throughout new student and parent orientations and student-affairs activities. The problem is that they are signs of an alleged commitment that is rarely realized, and they give the false, and dangerous, impression that race relations on campus are much better than they really are. It is no wonder that so many universities lack even the basic data on faculty diversity or a plan to address systemic racism (much less define it). HSWIs are too busy cashing in on the commodity of their diverse bodies to actually invest in addressing the experiences of students and faculty of color on campus. 

And the failure to do so has long-term consequences. As Andre Perry noted in the Washington Post: “Campus racial climate has been linked to academic success. And research has long shown that academic preparedness is only one of many factors that determine why students do or don’t graduate. The psychological attitudes between and among groups, as well as intergroup relations on campuses, influences how well students of color perform and whether they stay on track toward graduation. Graduation rates lag when schools don’t provide an environment that fosters the scholastic pursuits of minority students, particularly Black men.”

HSWIs don’t hire Black professors in significant numbers, rarely promote the few that are there to tenure, and don’t hire Blacks as administrators. In short, like the rest of the American workplace, HSWI campuses are apartheid institutions.

Despite efforts to rationalize, the absence of Black faculty is a supply problem. The Washington Post reports that, “The myth that black Ph.D.s just don’t exist supports anemic institutional efforts at TWIs [traditionally White institutions] to recruit and tenure Black faculty. A 2012 National Center for Education Statistics report indicates an almost 43 percent increase in the award of Ph.D.s to Blacks from about 7,000 in 1999–2000 to slightly over 10,000 in 2009–2010. Yet, the average increase in Black faculty appointments at TWIs during the same period was about 1.3 percent. Sadly, the percentage of Black faculty at the nation’s TWIs averages out to a dismal 4 percent, today.”

Not surprisingly, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—which represent a mere 3 percent of the 3,000 colleges and universities in the USA—are home to 96 percent of Black tenured faculty. As the Post states, “If HBCUs disappeared, so would most of the nation’s Black academics.” Maybe, if universities just looked among its underpaid and overworked adjuncts, they would be able to find countless Black Ph.D.s ready to not only add to their “diversity numbers” but also transform the campus climate, challenge the possessive investment of whiteness within the faculty, and otherwise demand universities live up to the image presented in the brochures.

In the wake of the most recent round of protests, universities are running scarred albeit to their predicable faux-diversity playbook. Administrators are rushing to add pages to the brochure and bolster their numbers for next year’s report. Yale has set aside $50 million for diversity programs —but what will that do? Some faculty at Rutgers, Duke, Harvard, and a few other schools have told me that they’ve received e-mails from administrators who want to put together diversity committees and organize forums to talk about race. Will it change the fact that the few Black faculty members find nooses on their cars? The problem is that NONE of these largely symbolic and ultimately superficial knee-jerk reactions do a thing to really address racism. There is no commitment to changing the institutional culture or challenging the foundational notions of White supremacy that is at the core of the problem. None of this addresses racism inside or outside of the classroom, or the chronically overworked and underpaid status of faculty of color. These approaches are as effective as treating cancer with a Band-Aid. The tree and orchard are rotten yet they are simply trying to add some apples on a few branches. Black Students and their allies are demanding an entirely new orchard.

Student outrage and action is proof that most campuses have not just failed at diversifying its students and professorial ranks; they never really intended to try. The result is students of color are harassed and intimidated because little has been done to change the toxic and violent campus culture. Meanwhile, Fox and friends have convinced White students that students of color are taking over to their detriment.

Student protests are just beginning with this new generation of Black students who came of age watching young men and women who look like them lose their lives to racist violence and become hashtags: #MikeBrown #Trayvon #ICantBreath #AmINext, etc.

They are angry. They grew up hearing and seeing messages that their lives don’t matter. They grew up with divestment in their communities, with everyone in America telling them that they’re inferior, worthless, useless and less than fully human at every turn. So when those who beat the odds and go to college are hit with the institutional bullshit and micro-aggressions, naturally they’re going to rise up against the status quo.

The young people are fired up, standing up, speaking up and acting up. This revolution is officially underway. What will the nation’s predominantly and historically White colleges and universities choose to do in response to youthful voices rejecting silent suffering and calling for change? Heeding the calls from Assata Shakur and #BlackLivesMatter activists, Black Students are telling the nation: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.”

Online, in the streets, and in those palatial presidential offices, they are making clear that they are going to fight because “they got nothing to lose but (their) chains.”


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