It may appear to outside observers that colleges and universities have made tremendous progress in regard to racial attitudes and practices over the past several decades. Certainly, their brochures and other public-relations materials would lead to this conclusion, as do the messages on their websites and social-media platforms. But the intensity and frequency of demonstrations conducted by students of color at campuses across the nation during the last few months do not reconcile with the sense of racial harmony that the institutions have attempted to convey. Further, faculty and administrators of color have offered their own testimonies of marginalization and exclusion that echo the students’ expressions of dissatisfaction.
The recent outbursts of discontent may have caught many white academics by surprise, but they result from a prolonged, repetitive litany of mistreatments, insults, slights, and even physical attacks that people of color have endured in predominantly white institutions since the ramping up of higher-education desegregation in the 1970s. Students on campus after campus are assailing the culture of the academy as one that supports and extends white privilege; minimizes the presence and influence of people of color in the student, faculty, and administrative ranks; and presents Eurocentric studies as the only legitimate sources of knowledge, while simultaneously ignoring or minimizing the contributions of nonwhites to the development of American society and world civilizations.
For more than four decades, I have been a member of a select group — academics of color who have spent most of our lives inside predominantly white colleges. From this vantage point, I recognize the validity of the charges and concerns of the demonstrating students, and I applaud their actions. During my career, I have attempted to call attention to the disjunction between what we say and what we do in the academy on matters of race and racism.
The accusations by student demonstrators that structural racism exists, even thrives, on their campuses elicit immediate defensive posturing by the institutions. It hardly seems possible that, in what some academics characterize as a color-blind, postracial society, this vile heresy could be directed against our most liberal-minded social institutions. When asked by my white colleagues how we could have come to this, I sometimes take the admittedly self-serving measure of providing them with quotes from a column that I wrote for The Chronicle. It reads in part:
"It hardly seems realistic for us to expect, or even hope, that the pattern of social relations should be any different on a college campus than it is in the ‘real world.’ There is no reason to suppose that the prejudices and shortcomings of the larger society won’t exist to the same degree at our institutions of higher learning. Yet, somehow racism seems even uglier on the college campus than in other less idealistic settings.
"The past year has seen an outpouring of racial animosity on campuses across the country. Colleges and universities — large and small, urban and rural, public and private — have witnessed ugly incidents that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. It seems fairly safe to link these activities to the same national climate that has brought about a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazis, and various other radical conservative groups.
"While greater numbers of minority- group students are matriculating at colleges and universities than ever before, to a large degree those students find themselves outside the mainstream of campus life. At best, the feeling that many have is that their presence is simply tolerated as a politically expedient maneuver; at worst, they feel they are the victims of subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — racist attitudes and practices on the part of classmates and instructors alike."
What often follows is a nodding of the reader’s head and a statement of affirmation, which is replaced by a look of confusion when I mention that the article that I am quoting from was published in 1981 — 35 years ago. I hasten to point out that what we’re experiencing in higher education is a chronic case of racial déjà vu.
The institutional responses to the calls by people of color for increased representation and participation at predominantly white colleges and universities will tell a great deal about where the higher-education enterprise is heading. It’s possible that a few forward-looking institutions will embrace the demographic reality of a more diverse nation, along with the social-justice expectations that future generations will embody, to align themselves with the prevailing cultural ethos of the 21st century.
But I suspect that most institutions will follow the time-worn academic pattern of delaying response to change by creating committees, task forces, and study groups to analyze the issues, in hopes that students will turn their interests to other matters rather than holding administrators and faculty leaders accountable for their inaction.
No doubt, there will be some institutions that flatly refuse to consider student demands, in which case they should realize that there will be consequences. Social media will be an increasingly important tool for future college students of color (and their parents), and institutional assessments provided by past and current students will be very important to them.
Enrolling, retaining, and graduating students of color must be a central goal of predominantly white institutions, and the effectiveness must be measured to establish a sense of accountability right up to the president. This goal will be demonstrably easier to achieve when there is also a critical mass of faculty members and administrators from the same underserved groups. The current numbers for people of color in such positions are minuscule, and they have not changed appreciably over the past three decades. I wrote another opinion column for The Chronicle back in 1986 with the title "Where Are the Black Faculty Members?" That question still stands.
Today, student demonstrations may help to increase diversity in the academy, but there is also a seldom-discussed factor that could affect the pace of change, and that is African-American student athletes. When the football and basketball players who dominate those sports realize and use their power to enhance diversity and inclusion at their institutions because of the sometimes immense revenues they draw, we will see, figuratively speaking, a whole new ball game. I hope it won’t take another 35 years.