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.
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