To Be a Black Man at UCLA

A student's video prompts a different kind of discussion about race.

November 11, 2013
Sy Stokes in a scene from his video

Sy Stokes, a junior at the University of California at Los Angeles, remembers that he nearly dropped out his first year. He has come to see that what he had been told about UCLA -- that it was diverse and welcoming of all kinds of people -- was hype. As a black male, he said in an interview Saturday, he felt "isolated" and he was very aware that the diversity at the university hasn't led to increases in the share of black students (about 4 percent). While UCLA regularly has debates about race, he said that he felt that the perspective of black male students was missing.

So last week Stokes -- with help from friends -- created a video called "The Black Bruins" and posted it to YouTube. Nearly 60,000 people have viewed the video -- and it has set off a new round of discussions about race at UCLA. This time, as opposed to debates set off by research critical of affirmative action, the agenda has been set by a black male student. Stokes narrates the video with fellow black male students standing with him and holding signs with some of the statistics he outlines. Of men at UCLA, black males make up 3.3 percent; of the 2,418 entering male students this year, 48 were black, and their expected graduation rate is 74 percent, so their numbers will shrink. He talks about students who leave because they can't get enough financial aid while the business school dean at UCLA flies around the world first-class.

Stokes talks about how frustrating it is to be told to be proud of being at UCLA when "we have more [athletic] championships (109) than black male freshmen (48)." He said that this sends a message that black students are there to "improve your winning percentage." UCLA is very good at "talk" about diversity, but this "fraudulent reputation" needs to be exposed, he says. "We are not asking for a handout," he says in the video. "We are asking for a level playing field."

The video ends with Stokes and a group of other black male students stripping off their UCLA sweatshirts, and standing in black T-shirts instead.

The timing of the video was sure to capture attention of UCLA administrators: This is the peak time for undergraduate applications, the deadline for which is November 30.

 

 

The comments posted on YouTube and at UCLA's student newspaper have been mixed -- with plenty of people criticizing the video and affirmative action. But in the interview, Stokes said he's not bothered by those views. "People are talking about the issue, and that's what counts," he said. Too much of the time, he added, nobody talks about these topics in a public way -- or they are reacting to what someone critical of affirmative action has said.

The university has disputed only one statistic in the video -- in which Stokes says that 65 percent of black men are athletes. The university says that 18.4 percent of black male students enrolled last year were admitted as athletes.

Stokes said in response that he thinks that number is too high -- not because black athletes shouldn't be at UCLA, but because it still suggests far too few non-athletes. The stereotype that athletes aren't smart, combined with the view on campus that black men are likely to be athletes, hurts black men whether they are athletes or not, he said. Asked if people assume he is an athlete, he said "it happens every day."

UCLA administrators have not contacted him since he posted the video, Stokes said.

Asked how the university reacted, UCLA released a statement from Janina Montero, vice chancellor for student affairs. She said that in the video, "a number of UCLA students eloquently and powerfully expressed their frustration and disappointment with the low number of African-American male students on campus. As a public institution that values a diverse student body, we share their dissatisfaction and frustration. Although we have made some progress -- African-American enrollment in the fall 2013 freshman class is at its highest since 1995 -- it remains both modest and slow."

The statement also noted that California voters have banned public universities from considering race in admissions -- even though UCLA leaders have opposed the ban. "We certainly recognize that the low numbers of African Americans and other underrepresented students on campus does lead to a sense of isolation and invisibility. It is difficult to eliminate this painful imbalance without considering race in the admissions process."

Stokes said it was "a big cop-out" for UCLA to blame its low numbers on the ban on consideration of race. Whatever UCLA is doing to help those in low-income, low-resources schools could be increased considerably, he said. UCLA has the resources, if it wanted, to turn around schools and expand the pool of black men who get get in, Stokes said. It should be doing more, he said.

One criticism of the video -- that he may discourage black male high schoolers from applying -- frustrates him. He said that he absolutely wants more black men to enroll. The reason he nearly dropped out, he said, was that he was so surprised that the environment was so hostile. Had he known what to expect, he said, he would have been better prepared. Further, he said that he thinks the video, by showing black male students speaking out, shows that there are black men at the university ready to help.

"People keep saying, 'Why would you want to discourage students from coming here?' " He said. "I want people to come here to be ready, to know that they can beat the system and succeed, and that to fight the system, we need to graduate first."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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