Racism on College Campuses

Racism on College Campuses March 17, 2011

My school recently had another racist incident:  two black students had racist slurs scrawled on their dorm room white boards.  I say “another” because they have happened here with depressing regularity:  a “pimps and hos” party two year ago, a student dressing in blackface for a Halloween party two years before that, and other incidents before that that have blurred together in my mind.  The minority students tell those faculty willing to listen that this is just the tip of the iceberg:  such things go on all the time, and it is only occasionally that they come to public attention.

I am not naming my school (though anyone can figure it with two minutes on Google) because while I have specific concerns about my institution, these problems are universal:  a pimps and hos party (actually “conquistabros and navahos” in honor of Columbus) at Harvard, a “Compton cookout” at UCSD, an “MLK party” at UConn Law school:  the list is seemingly endless.  It is un-nerving that a generation after the Civil Rights movement tore down many of the legal and social constructs of racism in America, our culture is still oozes this toxic sludge.  It is quite depressing how our students, many of whom are destined to be political and financial players, will either openly indulge in racist stereotypes and slurs, or just don’t think its a big deal.  When confronted by real students who do think it is a big deal, either shuffle uncomfortably or venture to suggest (usually in private or in “hypothetical” discussions) that these students are over-reacting.

I am curious as to your thoughts on this matter:  what lies behind this?  One conservative meme is that Colleges bring this on themselves:  students are not racists when they arrive, but are made so by a constant barrage of “racial re-education”, “political correctness” and “enforced multi-culturalism.”  In my own experience, this is simply false.  I have twice taught a first year seminar on race and class, and many of my white students come to school with their heads full of racist stereotypes and a parochial point of view that fails to look beyond their privileged white upbringing.  Diversity days and sensitivity training have taught them all to say the right things, but they have not internalized these messages.

[I am going to delete any post calling another poster a racist without comment.  Leave the ad hominem attacks at the door, please.   If you think a *statement* is racist or involves racist stereotypes, you can say so, but please be charitable and give the poster the benefit of the doubt.]

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  • chad

    “One conservative meme is that Colleges bring this on themselves: students are not racists when they arrive, but are made so by a constant barrage of ‘racial re-education’, ‘political correctness’ and ‘enforced multi-culturalism.'”

    While there are a many reasons why people become racists, I think this meme that you say is “simply false” is actually partly true. Most of these sensitivity training courses and multi-cultural curriculums are so far from what white students experience, racially, that they are considered absurd. Yet, if you voice this you are bullied into submission by being called ignorant or racist.

    I grew up in a “diverse” environment that had lots of racial tension. When I arrived at college (liberal environment) or did a stent w/ AmeriCorps (liberal environment) most of the people talking about race had no idea of the complexities and difficulties. When they were faced w/ real deal issues, these liberal whites were the first to develop confused feelings of racism.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      No, I don’t think they suddenly developed “confused feelings of racism”: I think they came in with a whole bunch of racial baggage imparted by the larger culture, with a patina of “racial understanding” spread thinly on top.

      • Chad

        David, you are welcome to think that and your answer is the typical response, but it isn’t helpful if what you want is honest dialogue and understanding. You have just dismissed a whole demographic’s experience on race. Many white kids know their experience isn’t valued or they soon find out. Eventually, they don’t play along because they don’t have to. This is the unfortunate result of shallow “race re-education”.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Chad, I do want “honest dialogue and understanding” and I am willing (and very happy) to listen to my white students discuss their experience. I share freely from my own experience, which is complicated and occasionally embarrassing. But it is my job as a teacher to help them interrogate their own experiences and see what are the underlying assumptions and points of view. In my experience, the real problem comes when their points of view are challenged by other points of view (from minority students, though at my school working class white students can be part of the challenge), and the discover that their assumptions about race are neither normative nor hegemonic. This is not to say that their assumptions are wrong (though in a lot of cases they are uniformed or unreflective) but they need to realize that other folks think differently. (My minority students have different blind spots which I try to get them to think about.) Working through this is sometimes painful, and I have had a few students simply refuse to do so. But a lot of students come away with a fuller understanding of race in America. They may not agree with me or the other students in class, but the definitely understand one another better.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    Each incident stands on its own set of circumstances, but my experience tells me there is a stream of young adults (usually men) who will continue reveal their weak character in this way.

    The college years are when many young adults are having their first chance to behave largely without direct parental control. A certain percentage regularly demonstrate they are not as fine a human being as had been assumed. Let’s help them discover this about themselves as well and learn from it.

    I earnestly hope colleges respond to these incidents and handle them in an appropriate way. By that I mean in a way which neither overreacts, nor underplays the seriousness of the offense.

    Young adults, both offenders and victims, can and do learn to grow into better people when such behavior is corrected well.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The real problem is finding what it means to respond in an appropriate way. Many college administrations react to racist incidents like Claude Rains (the police captain) in Casablanca: ‘I am shocked, simply shocked to discover that there is racism on this campus!” They issue a statement, there may be an open forum, and then nothing happens. In particular, nothing is done to address the structural issues or the broader cultural issues: punishment after the fact does very little to solve the problem.

      • Bruce in Kansas

        I don’t disagree but, until Jesus returns, we live in a fallen world.

        With a constant influx of new of students from all over creation entering US colleges each and every year, isn’t it unreasonable to expect to completely eliminate a certain level of thoughtless, outrageous behavior?

        Look, each case has to be judged on its own facts. I’m not arguing these incidents are okay or no big deal, just that they need to be dealt with not only on the level of disciplinary enforcement (or even criminal justice), but on the level of social justice, self awareness, maturity, and character improvement as well.

  • Judging from my own experience alone, I think that kids who do things like that don’t do it out of hate and don’t mean any harm.

    I didn’t grow up in a white area (though I’m white myself), so I know my experience isn’t typical. But none of the white kids I knew in my mixed-race junior high or high school was racist as far as I could tell, though people of all races made fun of each other freely.

    My kids now go to a private school which is mostly white. Occasionally I have heard some of the students (not my kids) making fun of, say, Mexican or black “accents” or “dialects” or whatever you want to call it. But these same kids are friends of my kids, who are of mixed race. Besides, there are many non-white kids in the school, and there have never been complaints of racism.

    I think the poking fun of other speech patterns is just that: poking fun, no more and no less.

    Now I understand that people of other colors and ethnicities might find it offensive, and charity dictates that we be careful not to offend people needlessly. But speaking strictly from the point of view of the kids who do it, I really don’t think it’s necessary to posit racial hatred as the motive behind it. Ignorance or insensitivity, sure, but from what I know of these kids, I don’t buy that hatred is behind it.

    I think as Bruce says, each case has to be judged on its own facts.

  • Sorry, I meant to say, “Judging from my own experience alone, I think that kids who do things like that *often* don’t do it out of hate and don’t mean any harm.” I’m sure that sometimes they do.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    The problem is that these white students may not mean to be hateful or harmful, but they project hate and they cause real harm. (I have seen it.) So in some sense it is immaterial whether it is the result of racial hatred, or bigotry, or insensitivity, or just drunken stupidity: their actions, whatever their motivations, have real consequences that they must take responsibility for. This is not only a matter of charity but of justice.

    I am not calling for brutal punishments for individual offenders. Bruce is right: the student population turns over every four years, and so this problem must be addressed continually. That is why I refer to the underlying structural problems: the students come in influenced by a broader culture that they have (for the most part) never critically examined. We need to help them figure out why some of their peers (for whatever reason), will write “nigger” or “spic” on a white board or in a bathroom stall, but never write “kike”, or “mick” or “dago”. (One exercise I like with my students is to get them to write down all the racial and ethnic slurs they know. I enliven the discussion with a host of “antique” terms such as these.)