Robert Bruce Slater is the managing editor of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.
Black students often tread cautiously onto the campuses of predominantly white American colleges. When they accept offers of admission, Lawrence Ross writes in his book “Blackballed,” “little do they know that despite the brochure showing smiling, happy faces, they’re about to step foot on some of the most racially hostile spaces in the United States.”
Racism, Ross argues, has been a fact of life for black students on predominantly white campuses for nearly 200 years. Today, dozens of major racial incidents are reported in the media each year. Just last fall, the issue resurfaced in national headlines when students at the University of Missouri protested the college administration’s poor response to a series of incidents. After a student went on a hunger strike and the football team refused to play, both the system president and the chancellor of the Columbia campus resigned. Emboldened by the success in Missouri, black students mounted similar protests against racism and racial inequality on campuses across the nation.
With the spring semester now underway, racial tensions continue to simmer. Early in February, Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., called off classes for a day after students of color presented a list of grievances to the administration. And at Purdue University, racially insensitive remarks were written in chalk on the sidewalk outside the Black Cultural Center.
Black students also endure insults, slurs and indignities that they don’t bother to report. These racial incidents are not restricted to the South or any other region; they occur at the most prestigious colleges, at state universities and at community colleges.
Ross lays much of the blame on fraternity and sorority culture in higher education. This is an area of his expertise: His earlier book, “The Divine Nine,” examined the history of African American fraternities and sororities. But the author acknowledges that the problem of racism on college campuses today goes far deeper than the Greek system.
Ross delves into a number of recent incidents including the segregation of fraternities and sororities at the University of Alabama, last year’s video showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a racist song on a party bus, and anti-affirmative-action protests by conservative student groups at the University of California. Ross also provides a large number of examples showing how colleges and universities continue to honor slaveowners and champions of Jim Crow with statues, portraits and buildings bearing their names, while at the same time touting their efforts to make their campuses more welcoming to black students.
The question is, why are our campuses still rife with such racism a half-century after the racial integration of American higher education? And even more important, what can be done about it?
Over the past quarter-century, most of the nation’s leading colleges and universities have made concerted efforts to increase the number of black students on their campuses, and these efforts have been largely successful. In 2004, only two of the nation’s 30 highest-ranked universities had incoming classes that were more than 10 percent black, according to annual surveys conducted by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. This year, there are eight. Half of the top 30 have entering classes that are at least 9 percent black. Through generous financial aid plans, these top-ranking colleges and universities have also taken steps to increase the enrollment numbers of low-income students.
Still, a large percentage of students at these selective schools come from the upper crust of American society. Many are legacies whose parents or grandparents attended. According to the Department of Education, half of the freshmen at some high-ranking universities do not receive any financial aid; one-third or more of the entering students at many other institutions, including most Ivy League colleges, pay full price. The families of these students are able to write checks to cover full tuition, room and board, and all other fees, which can approach $65,000 a year. It is highly probable that the vast majority of these students paying full price are white. The Census Bureau reports that there are 18 times as many white families with annual incomes in excess of $200,000 than black households at that income level.
When large numbers of high-income white students are joined on campus by increasing numbers of low- and middle-income black students, a culture clash is created and racial tensions can escalate. This is particularly true when white students think that black students have been admitted under affirmative action guidelines and believe that black students don’t deserve their places at our nation’s leading educational institutions.
One must remember, too, that the student bodies of colleges and universities are not stable. There is a constant flow of new students coming in and others dropping out or graduating. These new students come from all walks of life and are products of a society in which racism has been the norm since before the founding of the nation. Therefore, it should not be surprising that some of them bring racist baggage to campus. Nor should it be a surprise, particularly when large amounts of alcohol lessen inhibitions, that deep-seated racist sentiments boil up to the surface and are unleashed at others in the campus community.
So even at colleges and universities that do a good job in educating their students about tolerance, social justice, diversity, inclusion and equity, those students eventually leave campus. Each fall a new group arrives, and the process of racial integration and education starts all over again.
Ross presents some solutions. First, he urges a zero-tolerance policy against hateful speech and acts of racism on campus. No more slaps on the wrist for offenders. If students know that they will be expelled for writing a racial slur on a dormitory wall or yelling a racial slur at a black student, they may be more inclined to think twice. Ross also calls for efforts to make campuses more welcoming to black students, increases in the numbers of black students and faculty members, reform of the Greek system, and far more diversity training for all members of the campus community.
All are good proposals, but students don’t become racists when they arrive on campus. To solve the problem at colleges and universities, racism also needs to be addressed in our neighborhoods, workplaces, K-12 schools, government entities and the criminal justice system.
By Lawrence Ross
266 pp. $25.99