On February 24, 2014, The New York Times ran a story titled “Colorblind Notion Aside: Colleges Grapple with Racial Tension,” detailing myriad racial incidents on college campuses. However, according to a new survey by Inside Higher Ed, most college and university presidents don’t think this kind of racial tension is happening on their campuses. According to the IHE survey: “Most presidents (90 percent) say that, generally speaking, the state of race relations on their campus is good.” I was shocked to hear presidents answer in this way. How could this happen?
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Consider these incidents that have taken place on college campuses in the past year:
- A student at San Jose State University was tormented and ridiculed with racial slurs and the posting of the Confederate Flag by three students for months.
- The University of Alabama admitted that it tolerated racial segregation in its Greek system up until very recently, with Black students being targeted for discrimination across the system.
- Black students at Harvard University launched a Tumblr campaign called “I, Too, Am Harvard” to elevate the voices of Black students on campus because they are “unheard.”
- Black males at UCLA created a YouTube video titled The Black Bruins detailing the dismal statistics surrounding Black men on the Southern California campus. Likewise, law school students at UCLA have been bringing attention to the discrimination that they face on a daily basis through a social media campaign.
- The chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an Asian American woman, experienced racist slurs when she didn’t cancel classes during inclement weather.
- Black students at the University of Michigan are protesting the racial climate on campus through both traditional means and social media.
- A fraternity at Arizona State University held a party at which white students dressed in "gangsta wear" and drank from hollowed-out watermelons. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to delete an erroneous reference to McDaniel College.)
Given these blatant incidents taking place regularly throughout the nation, let’s run through some possible reasons that college presidents remain positive about the situation on their own campuses:
First, the presidents answering the survey, although responding anonymously, could have been worried about bringing negative attention to their campus if they answered anything less than good. Typically, when racial tensions are high on college campuses, presidents are in damage control mode, tempering how the story is played out in media outlets. Moreover, presidents claim that it is harder to recruit students of color after negative media stories surface.
Second, some of the presidents might actually believe the myth that since the election of Barack Obama (twice) to the presidency of the United States, we live in a postracial world in which people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds get along famously and have set aside their differences and misunderstandings.
Third, some presidents are not fully aware of what is happening on their campuses – in classrooms, students organizations, fraternity and sorority houses, and in the residence halls. Midlevel staff members don’t always report the day-to-day interactions among students, and deans don’t want to bring bad news related to faculty members to presidents. For instance, at San Jose State University, mentioned above, it took the midlevel management considerable time to report the horrific incidents to the president. Perhaps presidents are kept in the dark as to the minor racial incidents and race relations on their campuses; only those that draw media investigation get their attention.
Fourth, many campuses have all of the “signs” of healthy race relations – diversity offices, diversity-related administrators, cultural centers, and diversity programs infused in orientation and student affairs activities – giving the impression that race relations on campus are "good" even when they are not.
Fifth, presidents might assume that demographic diversity on campus, which is on the increase, is equal to positive interactions among students, faculty, and staff. Research shows us that oftentimes demographic diversity doesn’t lead to interaction and in fact, campuses need to be purposeful about engendering positive race relations.
Sixth, and I think the most likely reason for the presidents’ understanding of campus race relations; the majority of college and university presidents are white. Oftentimes, even well-meaning whites are oblivious to the daily microaggressions felt by people of color because they do not experience environments in the same way. More importantly, oftentimes whites create and sustain systems within academe that reinforce racism. These systems are most common in the areas of admission, faculty hiring and senior administration. For example, admission policies often privilege legacy status over the contents of the student application. Faculty member hiring systems sometimes hire candidates based on the recommendation of prominent white male professors rather than looking at the candidates that are actually in hiring pools. And upper administration, which is mainly white on most campuses, fail to notice their whiteness (intentionally or unintentionally) and the effect it has on the operations and race relations on campus.
From my own experience in academe at several colleges and universities, I have found that race relations are sometimes good depending on the circles in which I travel and they are sometimes strained. Students come to campus with varying degrees of exposure to difference; faculty members are sometimes uncomfortable "talking about diversity" and oftentimes will go to great lengths to protect white privilege and the systems that are in place that uphold this privilege; and administrative ranks at most colleges and universities are overwhelmingly white, making it more difficult to have an accurate understanding of race relations on college campuses.
I do believe that our college campuses have people who care deeply about being inclusive, promoting true diversity, and engendering honest racial dialogue. However, there are still many individuals who do not feel this way; these people occupy the faculty ranks, the study body, the administration and staff, and even the presidency. Unless these individuals push themselves (or are pushed) to see the world through another set of eyes and place themselves in situations that are different from their everyday norm, they will not be able to catch a glimpse into what people of color experience on campus. An acknowledgement of the challenges that we still have in the area of race relations on campus is the pathway to bettering these relations; top down leadership is essential.