Racism exists in American society. This fact may be an inconvenient truth for some, but for millions of Americans it is an ever-present, inescapable aspect of their reality. And while racism -- or its persistent threat -- characterizes the lived experiences of so many, there are still those who will dismiss civil discourse on the topic of race until tragedy strikes, thrusting these societal ills into the spotlight.
And once again that has happened -- this time in my beloved hometown, Charleston, S.C. The news coming out of Charleston has left me crestfallen. As I watch this chapter in America’s racial history unfold, I am saddened beyond comprehension. Saddened by the loss of lives -- people and families whose lives are intertwined with my own. Saddened by the cruelty that was unleashed on the innocent. And saddened by the pockets of our society unable to see the existence of racism until a hate crime surfaces.
As president of an organization committed to increasing college access and success, reflecting on racism in the broader society has made me acutely aware of the manifestations of racism on college and university campuses. While racial diversity in higher education has improved, instances of overt racism still exist and hurt students of color directly but also affect everyone on campus, white students included.
Two of the individuals killed in the Charleston shooting were members of the higher education community. DePayne Middleton Doctor was an admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University, and Cynthia Hurd was a librarian at the College of Charleston, my alma mater. Because of this racist act, a cloud of sadness and grief now hangs over both of these institutions. Other overt acts, such as the incidents at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Mississippi, also elicit a collective disdain that transcends the color line. Yet, despite general disapproval of such acts, rarely do they propel sustained collective action to address race and racism.
In addition to these overt acts, insults and ignorance leave many minority students feeling unwelcome on their own campuses. For example, Asian-American and Pacific Islander students, viewed as a monolithic group, constantly must confront the model minority myth. Also, all across the nation, campus buildings and symbols, such as Amherst College’s mascot, honor individuals whose historical legacy is disconnected from the current campus’s mission and student body. And far too few colleges are providing education and training on how to be an inclusive campus.
However, the more systemic instances of racism that permeate higher education are rarely acknowledged. Our failure, for example, to really talk about race manifests in a growing trend among higher education professionals and advocates, like myself, to use the more mainstream term of “equity.” While race is often implicit in these conversations, “equity” is quickly becoming a catchall phrase that could easily, once again, marginalize the issue of race.
Equity does prompt attention to a range of marginalized populations based on markers such as socioeconomic status, gender, etc. -- important lenses for addressing discrimination -- but discrete attention to race is often lost in the process. I also recognize that the term equity is more palatable; after all, initiating a conversation by talking about race is often a nonstarter. But just because we are uncomfortable with the word, or more specifically, uncomfortable with our country’s racial past and its lingering effects, does not mean that the blemish is not there. To the contrary, our discomfort allows these wounds to deepen.
In higher education, when we do talk about race, we highlight growing college enrollments fueled by communities of color, which now represent 42 percent of the student body. But too often we fail to ask the hard questions about whether colleges are serving and educating students of color well. Failure to do so -- and then blaming poor outcomes on the student’s native language, academic preparation or family circumstances -- further demonstrates how accustomed we have become with racial judgments. Even well-intentioned people -- free of racist or malicious intent -- unconsciously reinforce these notions.
Too often, politicians, policy makers and higher education leaders couch calls for an improved higher education system solely in economic terms. Yes, for our economy to succeed, we will need to better educate our increasingly diverse society. And yes, a college education pays off in tangible economic benefits. However, by allowing this economic narrative to dominate, we have subjugated the crucial social justice and civil rights justifications for racial diversity and equity. In doing so, we have once again minimized the historical injustices and everyday lived experiences of people of color in America.
I recognize that higher education alone cannot undo or address all of the issues of racism and hatred that stem from our country’s racial legacy. But we can do our part. And doing so begins with recognizing that our words and approach are reinforcing -- not remedying -- the problem. Honest, race-centric conversations are hard, but nowhere near as hard as facing decades of oppression, discrimination and unequal access to educational opportunity. College faculty and administrators should foster inclusive learning environments on their campuses, where historical and current-day issues of race and racism can be discussed and interrogated civilly and provocatively.
We should tackle these issues for the sake of our economy, but we must tackle them for the sake of our national values. Ending racism is about civil rights. It is about social justice. Higher education leaders must embrace these racial realities to catalyze real change and hold true on the promise of equality and opportunity that we have made to all Americans.
Michelle Asha Cooper is president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), an independent nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.
Graeme Phillip Harris, a former student at the University of Mississippi, on Thursday pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of threatening force to intimidate African-American people at the university when in 2014 he placed a noose around a statue of James Meredith, the first black student to enroll there, the Associated Press reported. Prosecutors dropped a felony charge in return for the guilty plea. Authorities said that Harris had a history of using racist language and making demeaning comments about black people, and that he proposed the idea of placing the noose on the statue to fellow students drinking in a fraternity house.
Kalief Browder -- one of my college’s students -- died June 6, 2015.
He took his own life.
Sadly, he never recovered from the experience of being imprisoned without bail for three years beginning at the age of 16, at Rikers Island, a New York City jail. He awaited a trial that never was because the charges were eventually dropped. Released at age of 19 and deeply scarred emotionally, he came to Bronx Community College of the City University of New York with the intention of becoming a productive member of our society. Enrolled in Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students, he obtained a high school equivalency diploma and started as a liberal arts major last fall. Kalief completed 11 credits. While he struggled at first, he was doing much better this spring, when he finished the semester with eight credits and term grade point average of 3.562.
He was 22 years of age when he died. For Kalief we represented hope. Our campus served as an intellectual oasis for this fragile mind; his prospects of a good life were becoming defined and real.
Bronx Community College is located in the 15th Congressional District. It currently holds the distinction of being the poorest congressional district in the United States. The correlation between poverty and crime is well-known. The majority of our students are from this district and this neighborhood. They are different and unique from the students at four-year institutions and those at many other community colleges nationwide. If BCC is an emblem of hope in the Bronx, Rikers, as another city-run operation, is an emblem of despair. As a society, we must find a way to help these young people rather than letting them rot in jail until they are so damaged that nothing we do can save them.
Our hearts are broken today for Kalief. He represented who we are as a college, a place where many people who are wounded by the vicissitudes of life eventually find their way. We do save lives. But Kalief’s death reminds us that we may not always be able to resolve the internal struggles that members of our community are facing. We never know what demons lurk within our students’ minds.
Last year, the World Health Organization reported that 800,000 people die as a result of suicide worldwide every year. Forty-one thousand of those suicides occurred in the United States, a number that WHO indicates may be low due to underreporting and misclassification. WHO also reports that there are indications that for each adult who dies of suicide, there are likely to be more than 20 others attempting suicide. It remains the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Suicides of college students get much attention in the media, but most of the articles are about those at residential, four-year colleges.
Community college students are vulnerable. Many come to us with emotional burdens created by difficult situations. Students who did not do well in high school come to the community college expecting to have a reprieve from the mistakes they made in high school. They believe that coming to a community college is a second chance at doing what they, their parents and perhaps even society expect of them.
Some come believing that they don’t belong but hope that, somehow, something great will happen to them. Suddenly, a light will turn on, and their lives will be changed forever. Others come understanding that they have the ability but that their study habits need to improve. Others come because people in their lives made them attend -- parents, family members or even a court order. Yet others come to save money so that they can afford to finish at their school of first choice. Many, usually adult students, come to be trained for a well-paying job after recognizing that their present lot in life is a dead end. Many students who themselves are children have children. Many are working one or two jobs and attempting to attend college on a full-time basis.
Some, like Kalief, were previously incarcerated. Others are undocumented and afraid. At Bronx Community College, just as is the case at other community colleges, we welcome all who are willing to work for a better life. They are real heroes in our present-day society, for in spite of all the problems they face, their grit, their determination, their willingness to make sacrifices so as to have a better life for themselves and their children drive them to succeed. The American Dream may be lost for some but it is alive and well for this population of students.
The current emphasis on outcomes rather than enrollments at the community colleges is yielding results. People are paying attention to providing effective academic and student support services for these students. The successes of programs such as CUNY’s ASAP, LaGuardia Community College’s learning communities, Queensborough Community College’s Academies and many others have created a flurry of attention on the type of pedagogy needed to move these students more effectively through the curriculum. And, little by little, we are winning the battle against ignorance. Graduation rates are inching up, retention rates are improving.
Concomitantly, when we accept students under our open admissions policy, we accept the responsibility to address their educational and emotional needs. If we are to improve our graduation rates, we must put in place effective programs that address the myriad of problems affecting our students. We must attend to the fragile minds of damaged students. We must turn the academic and student support services upside down. The traditional model works well for selective colleges but not for community colleges. We must spend time and treasure diagnosing students’ problems upon admission and we must create a “prescription” to address them as they progress through the curriculum. The term in loco parentis takes a different meaning at the community colleges.
Private philanthropy is answering the call. Kalief was part of Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students that helped him get a high school diploma and provided peer mentoring, internships and individual tutoring. For 15 years, with the generous support of foundations and individuals, we have been helping students between the ages of 17 and 21. This program is a lifeline. But we need more. We must make the case for adequate support to help our students.
May Kalief rest in peace.
Eduardo J. Marti is interim president of Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.
Virginia prosecutors have dropped charges against Martese Johnson, a black student at the University of Virginia, The Washington Post reported. When Johnson was arrested in March, photographs showing him bloodied after police officers detained him outraged many who saw the incident as an example of discriminatory policing, and set off a furor on campus and beyond. Johnson was stopped after he tried to enter a bar.
The state's attorney issued this statement about the decision to drop charges: “Upon review of the evidence resulting from a thorough and independent criminal investigation conducted by the Virginia State Police, the commonwealth reached a conclusion that the interest of justice and the long-term interest of the Charlottesville community are best served by using this case as an opportunity to engage ordinary citizens, law enforcement officers and public officials in constructive dialogue concerning police and citizen relationships in a diverse community.”
The University of Oxford's last all-male unit -- St. Benet's Hall -- decided Thursday to start admitting female students, BBC reported. Officials said that the college, which is small, held off in the past for practical reasons, such as the lack of enough housing. But with a new building to house students, St. Benet's will make the shift.
United Airlines on Wednesday issued a formal public apology to Tahera Ahmad, an associate chaplain and the director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern University, for the way a flight attendant treated her. The airline's move came amid widespread criticism -- including from Northwestern's president -- for a flight attendant refusing to give Ahmad an unopened can of Diet Coke, saying that it could be used as a weapon. On social media and elsewhere, the case has become an illustration of bias faced by Muslims. United's statement Wednesday noted that the flight was operated by a company contracted by United, not United itself.
“While United did not operate the flight, Ms. Ahmad was our customer and we apologize to her for what occurred on the flight. After investigating this matter, United has ensured that the flight attendant, a Shuttle America employee, will no longer serve United customers,” the statement said. “United does not tolerate behavior that is discriminatory -- or that appears to be discriminatory -- against our customers or employees. All of United’s customer-facing employees undergo annual and recurrent customer service training, which includes lessons in cultural awareness. Customer-facing employees for Shuttle America also undergo cultural sensitivity training, and United will continue to work with all of our partners to deliver service that reflects United’s commitment to cultural awareness.”
Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, has written to United Airlines, urging the airline to apologize for the way a flight attendant treated the university's Muslim chaplain, The Chicago Tribune reported. In a case that has attracted much anger on social media, a flight attendant declined to give the chaplain an unopened can of Diet Coke, saying that unopened cans could be used as a weapon. Others have noted that the airline has given many people (including one visible on that flight) unopened cans, and suggested that the response to Tahera Ahmad, an associate chaplain and the director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern, was based on her being visible as a Muslim because of her veil.
Schapiro's letter to United said, “Tahera Ahmad is the Muslim chaplain at Northwestern, one of the few female Muslim chaplains in the country, and an esteemed leader in our community…. Yet she was treated with a complete lack of respect. …The extraordinarily unprofessional and humiliating treatment of one of our community members is shockingly disappointing.”
United officials said that the airline has apologized to Ahmad and will respond to Schapiro, who said that United has not done enough to apologize. “Chaplain Ahmad should receive a more formal apology from United, along with assurances that United will train its staff so that she, and others, are never again subjected to such discrimination on a United flight,” Schapiro wrote.
Inside Higher Ed is pleased to release today “Diversity in the Student Body,” our latest print-on-demand booklet. Articles focus on demographic and legal issues -- and the strategies used by different institutions. You may download the free booklet here. And you may sign up here for a free webinar on the booklet's themes, to be held Tuesday, June 30, at 2 p.m. Eastern.