Campuses as Racial Utopias?

It depends on whom you ask, write David L. Brunsma, David G. Embrick and James M. Thomas, who contend that institutional leaders often try to deny racial tensions on their own campuses.

August 25, 2016

A recent survey by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup of college and university presidents reveals that while 84 percent of university leaders believe race relations on their own campuses are either “excellent” or “good,” less than 25 percent thought so about race relations on other campuses in 2015-16. The percentage of presidents who assessed their own campus racial climate as “good” or “excellent” and elsewhere as not, increased from the previous 2014-15 survey.

Yet this past academic year was marked by numerous high-profile protests at colleges and universities across the country. At the University of Mississippi, for example, students demanded and won the removal of the Mississippi state flag from campus grounds. At the University of Missouri, student protesters helped force the resignation of both the system president and chancellor of the main campus. Student protests at Brown University led to the president’s promise to devote more than $100 million to diversity and inclusion efforts on her campus.

How is it possible that in a period increasingly defined by the resurgence of nationwide protests across campuses, college and university leaders can deny or minimize racism at their own institutions?

In late December 2015, we asked colleagues across the country to send us their institution’s responses to nationwide student protests against racism and discrimination. We sought publicly available messages posted to university websites, shared through campuswide email distributions or statements to local, state and national press. We were interested in what we have coined the post-Mizzou effect, believing that the high-profile case at the University of Missouri would provide an opportunity for college and university leaders to confirm what the aforementioned survey found: that while other campuses are embroiled in racial conflict, their own communities were safe. All told, we collected nearly 70 responses from leaders of institutions that ranged from small liberal arts colleges to large research institutions.

An analysis of those responses reveals that while college and university campuses may each be distinct spaces, they rely upon familiar tropes, or frames, to communicate beliefs about their own campus racial climate as it compares to others. For example, nearly every person who responded declared that race relations on their campus are good, much improved compared to previous years, or that the institution is taking significant steps to make things better. No response made mention of failed efforts or existing racial conflict.

On the one hand, that is not surprising. University leaders are often asked to help fund-raise and need to be adept at convincing private citizens, public officials and certainly alumni that their campus is a good investment. On the other, given the sheer number of campus protests nationwide, as well as the enormous news media coverage that followed them, we find it hard to believe that every institution we sampled is a utopia for race relations.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has a crowdsourced list of more than 100 campus racial incidents dating back to 2011, and FBI data shows that more than 780 hate crimes took place on college and university campuses in 2013. Meanwhile, by the end of 2015, student protesters had issued written or verbal demands at nearly 80 colleges and universities.

Nevertheless, nearly half of our sample contained explicit commitments from college and university leaders to “diversity,” “inclusion” or “equity.” Some marked their efforts as enduring, woven into the fabric of their institution. Brandeis University, for example, claimed its commitment is “lasting,” while Virginia Commonwealth University declared its commitment is “unrelenting.” Other institutional leaders promised their communities that the events across the nation would produce new commitments. At Duke University, for example, leadership declared that “continued campus dialogue” would occur in 2016, sparked by the “national debate about issues around race, diversity and inclusion.” Still other college and university leaders chose to downplay or minimize any potential racial conflict at their institutions. At Georgia State University, for example, leadership touted its national recognition in “The Washington Post for our commitment to diversity.”

Yet a deeper analysis of the various responses reveals that, in many cases, commitment functioned as a way for institutions to distance themselves from the racial conflict taking place elsewhere and/or deny racial tension on their own campus. For example, the same day that hundreds of students gathered to raise awareness about experiences of racism at Columbia University, its president declared in an email to the campus community that the university's commitment to addressing racial inclusion there and elsewhere was “deep.” Likewise, four days after students rallied against a “climate of antiblackness” at the University of California, Irvine, the institution's leadership proclaimed that that the continuing diversity activities and dialogues on that campus reinforced its “commitment to sustaining and supporting a diverse community.” Moreover, the Black Student Union had filed a letter with a number of demands for improving the campus racial climate earlier in the year.

As scholars who study race and racism, we are concerned that the public messaging of campus racial climates by college and university leaders is deeply entrenched within the larger ideologies of colorblindness and diversity. In the 21st century, racism has been caricatured as extreme bigotry, often directed at an individual or group of individuals, by another. Yet a significant body of sociological research shows that contemporary racism is much less overt and often comes in the form of downplaying or minimizing existing racial disparities. Colleges and universities, for example, will often tout their creation of an Office for Diversity and Inclusion as evidence of their deep commitment to promoting racial inclusion, while their leadership and senior faculty ranks remain overwhelmingly white (and male).

On college campuses, as in every corner of our society, pretending that race, racial inequality and racism do not exist is not the same thing as working actively to effect social change in these spaces. As faculty members at three different universities, when we embarked on this project, we did so because the race-related communications and responses coming from our own institutions were, given our experience, quite out of the ordinary from administrations -- rare indeed are communiqués that even come close to discussing race and racism.

Colleges and universities, the vast majority which are historically white, are spaces that are rife with racial conflict, but not typically discussed -- whether in the dorm, the classroom, the department or the halls of administration. We believe the events at institutions like the University of Missouri represent the tip of an iceberg and reveal only a small part of the racial animosity that has pervaded campuses for generations of students, faculty members, staff members and administrators. What encouraged this collective administrative response across dozens of colleges and universities to the tip of that iceberg is unclear. What is clear from our initial research is that this response, in its institutional inertia, appears to quickly wish to push the tip back underwater.


David L. Brunsma is a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech University. His Twitter handle is @brunsma. David G. Embrick is an associate professor of sociology at the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. His Twitter handle is @dgembrick. James M. Thomas is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi. His Twitter handle is @Insurgent_Prof.

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