Black Social Movements’ Inflection on Recent Student Demands to Higher Education

by W. Carson Byrd

Concerned Student 1950, led by University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler, speaks following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign as a result of their protest, Nov. 9, 2015, in Columbia, Mo. Photo by Sarah Bell/Missourian/AP.

The recent wave of student demands to combat racism and inequality shook many campuses across the US beginning in the fall 2015. The University of Missouri, seen as a catalyst for this wave of student movement activities, found itself embroiled in student protests and administrative controversy. After students issued demands for institutional change, administrators made promises for hires and addressing resources, opportunities, and the campus climate. Other campuses across the nation also witnessed student movement activities with black students often the most visible leaders pushing their institutions to commit to the hard work of not simply being more diverse, but more inclusive, equitable, and just. This is not the first time higher education witnessed black social movements seeking to transform institutions, which raises the question: how do these recent demands connect to the long history of black social movements in higher education?

We’ve Been Here Before: Reactions to Black Social Movements in America

Almost as soon as campus protests and demands were issued, commentators frequently lamented how students were a generation disconnected from the “real world” and who were simply responding to “hurt feelings.” These students were labelled “coddled” and “snowflakes.” Further, commentators used thinly-veiled racial language to call the black student leaders “kids,” “childish,” and dangerous “Jacobins” that build on entrenched denigrating and dehumanizing narratives of black communities’ efforts for social justice on- and off-campus, such as those in Haiti as noted by C.L.R. James in Black Jacobins. As Barbara Ransby notes, this backlash likely resulted from commentators’ connection and desire to denigrate another burgeoning black social movement of the time, the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, examining what students demanded during the peak of these student movement activities suggests another reality; one informed by the long history of black social movement for equity and social justice.

A signature of black social movements is an aim for systemic transformation of institutions, including higher education. The history of higher education is marked by racism and inequality. Craig Steven Wilder, for example, documents how many of the most revered institutions in the nation were built on and, in many ways, for racism. Historians also document the importance of the black student movement in higher education, particularly in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Ibram Kendi and Stefan Bradley describe how students took the Black Power efforts for community transformation and applied them to their campuses. These historical accounts elaborate the important community-higher education connection black students worked to change. As Shirletta Kinchen’s work on black youth movements attests, seeking empowerment, self-determination, and overall systemic change was and continues to be a mainstay for young black adults whether or not they pursue a college degree. A recent analysis of student demands and their contexts suggests how black student movements today are inflected by those of the past as they work to envision and craft a brighter tomorrow on college campuses.

Building on Successful Demands of the Past

In a project I led with doctoral students LeAnna Luney, Jakia Marie, and Kimberly Sanders, we examined the student demands issued during 2015 and 2016. We utilized a nationally representative sample of institutions to link student movement data with institutional- and state-level data to better identify how the contexts surrounding students informed the demands they issued to administrators. We focused on how many and what type of student demands were issued by including six demand categories: (1) changes to policies and leadership practices; (2) resources on-campus; (3) underrepresentation among students, faculty, and staff; (4) cultural competency training; (5) curricular and academic programs; and (6) support services for marginalized students.

Many interesting findings exist from our analyses, but one institutional characteristic was an underlying factor for students demanding systemic change on their campuses: Africana studies programs (often referred to as black studies). Students were more likely to issue demands to their institutions if one of these programs existed on campus, and issued more demands across all six demand themes included in our analyses. We argue this is a direct effect of past black student movements to change college campuses, and the important educational and civic engagement sources of these programs.

Africana studies programs were established to be an institutionalized aspect of colleges and a counter space for black students and faculty to promote a broader education about the African diaspora, experiences with different facets of racism around the globe, particularly in the US, and the breadth of cultural and historical contributions of diasporic communities. These programs are part of a larger black nationalist sector that distinctly impacted society in the mid-twentieth century by seeking to transform major organizations and institutions from education to the legal field, social work, and many other areas of life. The founding of Africana studies led to a dramatic change in the curricular offerings and knowledge production of universities as well.

However, the founding of Africana studies programs was not disconnected from other activities of black student movements. Students simultaneously demanded other counter spaces within historically white institutions, such as Black Student Unions, themed residential options, and pushed for policy changes to increase student and faculty representation, and the resources and opportunities afforded for marginalized and oppressed communities. These black student efforts ultimately transformed how higher education not only looked in relation to student and faculty representation, but also forced administrators to address their complicity in marginalizing and oppressing black communities.

The recent wave of student demands display many features of past black social movements. Integral to Africana studies programs is the examination of how marginalization and oppression exist on multiple levels within and across institutions, regardless of individual intent. That is, students are taught to understand how racism can exist without individual racists, and work with frameworks to identify needed cultural and structural changes on campus and elsewhere in society. Part of these frameworks include the need for students to be active citizens in their campus communities by promoting equity, inclusion, and social justice through integrated policy changes and initiatives that holistically transform institutions rather than provide superficial solutions to systemic issues.

Policy changes extend to everything from college admissions requirements, financial aid practices, faculty review policies, acknowledging historical oppression and racial exclusion by institutions, and addressing inadequate resources and opportunities to support students once they arrive on campus. Student demands were aimed with such an integrated and holistic approach, leaving few areas of campuses untouched, if any. For example, Syracuse University students organized a series of demands that connected marginalized student communities into a 45 page document explaining policy changes and initiatives needed to address hundreds of issues on campus. Further, student demands often included students’ desire for their institutions to be diversity and social justice advocates in their off-campus community; a marker of black social movement efforts to understand and change interlocking aspects of our communities.

Why Black Studies of Black Lives Matters for Higher Education

Africana studies faculty uniquely value student input and participation in academic and social programming, and these faculty views crystalized across new faculty cohorts since their founding over 40 years ago. This value of student input assists with cultivating their leadership capabilities on- and off-campus to tackle systemic issues. The view that students are integral parts of college communities and have a voice needing to be heard exists in the recent wave of demands for student oversight and participation on university-wide committees, which is a feature of many Africana studies programs since their inception.

Further, students issuing demands exhibited other important features of black social movements: Afrofuturism and Afropessimism. In the face of racism and systemic inequality, students envisioned a brighter future centered on social justice and utilized art and technology to elaborate an in-depth criticism of the interlocking matrix of domination, which grounds their efforts beyond the ivory tower into the community; a vital feature in the Black Lives Matter era. As T. Elon Dancy and colleagues note, the antiblackness interwoven into higher education is a formidable sociohistorical structure, but one worth dismantling and student demands are one approach to doing just that. Students actively use art and technology in innovative ways to connect to other communities pushing for institutional transformation, coalescing and expressing their experiences of alienation, and identifying how institutional policies and practices must be remade to avoid reinforcing marginalization and oppression on campus and by higher education as a whole.

The recent student demands present higher education and society with an important mirror to look into as they reflect on the continuing need to address marginalization and oppression in and by higher education. This mirror is inflected by black social movements of the past, and as the current student movements showcase, will likely exhibit features of these movements in the future.

W. Carson Byrd is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. His research examines race and educational inequality, inter- and intraracial interactions and their influence on identities and ideologies, and race, science, and knowledge production.

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