Black lives matter, On Campus Racism 101
I was one of those perplexed white people. I am a progressive. I am open. I like to think I’m more aware of racism than the average white person. My neighbor already had a “Black Lives Matter” sign in her yard. She gets it, I thought. What am I missing? Don’t “All Lives Matter”?
Here is my epiphany, laid out in a simple comic strip.
For other people, the light goes on with one little word: Black Lives Matter, Too. Of course all lives matter. But in American culture, white lives matter automatically. And black lives do not.
Lives like those of Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice. I’ve run out of words to post with the multiplying links to stories of unarmed black men and boys shot down or killed.
Words like devastating. Heart-breaking. Criminal.
This litany is especially relevant on college campuses, where AFT faculty and staff — the people for whom I write — live and work. The system of higher education in the United States is just as inequitable as the justice system. So vast is the gap between white and black on college campuses, I found myself double- and triple-checking my numbers when I looked it up at the National Center of Education Statistics.
Just 10.3 percent of the students who earned bachelors’ degrees in 2009–2010 were black; 72.9 percent were white (13.2 of the entire population is black, per the U.S. Census). This is at ALL four-year degree- granting institutions, not just the elite ones. The gap widens even further among those who earn doctoral degrees: 7.4 percent are black, 74.3 percent white. But the faculty numbers are the most shocking: 5 percent are black, 73 percent white. And it’s worse at the Ivy Leagues and larger four-year universities, as this chart from Mother Jones shows.
What are we going to do about it? Well, for one, we focus on black lives. I care about all sorts of diversity — ethnic, economic, gender, LGBTQ. But this is a moment for black people. Because the black house, as so clearly depicted above, is burning.
The statistics are stark. But they come alive for me when I hear what happens at colleges where the skewed numbers allow racism to flourish. My heart sank when I heard fraternity brothers belting out a song about how they’d “never let a n___ into SAE.” My eyes popped at the vandalized portraits of black faculty at Harvard, fraternity house signs that advised, “white girls only” at Yale and a noose hanging around a statue of a black student in Mississippi.
When I dug deeper, I saw that in addition to these blatant attacks there is a level of unwelcome that saturates most predominantly white college campuses. My white privilege made me blind to it.
What I hadn’t seen: all the statues around campus are of white people. Or by white artists. The architecture: white. Professors: nearly all white.
Have you seen the movie, “Dear White People”? It exposes everyday racism plucked straight from reality. “Dear White People,” a black-identified college DJ intones. “The minimum number of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two.” And “Dear White People: Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” It’s funny. But also, not. Especially when the credits roll with headlines reporting actual racist events on actual American campuses, like white students holding blackface parties.
As I collected material for this issue of Voices On Campus, my eyes were opened to things like “cultural taxation,” paid by black professors who are so busy mentoring black students (because there are far too few black professors to go around), attending committee meetings (because committees must be diverse and again, only so many black professors are available) and supporting other faculty of color that they don’t have as much time as white faculty do to advance their own careers.
I was shocked to hear Fred Bonner’s story. When he occupied the prestigious Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education (an AFT affiliate) Bonner, who is African American, had given his class an especially challenging reading assignment.
When he asked students what they thought the reading meant, one white student raised his hand to inquire whether Bonner was asking because he didn’t understand the material himself.
When he asked students what they thought the reading meant, one white student raised his hand to inquire whether Bonner was asking because he didn’t understand the material himself. Bonner describes the effort it took to keep from exploding with anger, then writes that he took several minutes to establish his credentials as an academic, diplomatically walking the students through his various areas of expertise using lots of big words to impress upon them that he is, in fact, a highly respected, well-educated professor who knows a heck of a lot more than they do. His piece in Voices on Campus reflects on other equally challenging obstacles black faculty face, that white faculty do not.
Another compelling story hit me during a presentation by the AFT’s Racial Equity Task Force at a conference last year. Keith Johnson, an AFT vice president and former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, stood at a podium and gestured to one of his colleagues, a similarly successful leader in the organization. Here I paraphrase, because I was so captivated I stopped taking notes. We did all the right things, he said. We finished high school. We graduated from college, got multiple degrees. We dress well, we have good-paying jobs and impressive titles. We. Did. All. The. Right. Things. And yet, when we walk out into the world, we cannot take off our brown skin. White ladies cross the street to avoid us. Cabs won’t pick us up. People in elevators move to the corner.
I try to imagine having black skin and the life experiences that accompany it in the United States. I am instantly on alert — is anyone watching for me to mis-step? Is anyone judging me because I am black? In the grocery store, will they think I’m pilfering Cheerios? Or trying to pass a bad check, as in the video above? Is someone cutting me off in line because I’m black? How dare they? Aren’t I just as good as they are?
And on campus: will they recognize my name as “black” and put my submission to that academic journal on the bottom of the pile? Do my students understand that I really did my homework — literally — and know more than just about anyone, but especially more than they do, about my field? And wait, didn’t I just say what that white person said? Why didn’t the department head listen the first time? Was it because she doesn’t tune in to me? Because I’m black? Am I being paranoid? Or realistic?
There are some bright spots in this story. White people are beginning to pay attention. Hashtags like #blacklivesmatter have become part of the modern lexicon. Social media campaigns range from the iconic Black Bruins video to hashtags like Being Black at University of Michigan (#BBUM) and “I, Too Am Harvard.”
Outside the hashtag universe, people are getting arrested for social justice — people like Johnae Strong, who writes here about her experience as a young activist and third-grade teacher in Chicago. At Princeton University, students took over the president’s office insisting on a black cultural space on campus and protesting buildings named for Woodrow Wilson, whose policies prohibited black students from attending the school. Yale University responded to campus community outrage by doubling funding at four cultural centers, launching a five-year conference series on race, gender, equity and inclusion; requiring cultural competency training for administrators and mental health professionals; and continuing a $50 million effort to diversity the faculty.
Union members are writing racial justice into their contracts: the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation at the University of Oregon is bargaining for mandatory diversity training for staff and supervisors. Professors at San Diego State University get relief from cultural taxation with release time that allows them to mentor students and do their own important work. At the AFT, we are making progress with our Racial Equity Task Force, holding workshops at every regional meeting, divisional meetings and at headquarters, re-examining hiring practices and establishing a prototype for addressing racism head-on.
I try to be optimistic, to feel hopeful. The stories of systemic racism and individual discrimination are so devastating, though. And for me, as for too many white people, it’s new information. That’s embarrassing to say. But it’s true. There is some degree of shock. Yet I see people like Professor Bonner just carrying on, calmly describing his bona fides to disrespectful students.
Again, I realize I know nothing about what it is to be black. But I am anxious to learn, and to do what I can to foreground black experience even when I don’t understand it.
With this collection of Voices on Campus, we’re inviting you into the conversation. Comment, or write about your experience and send us the link. As a union, we need to talk. And listen. To fight, beyond the rhetoric and protest signs, so that black lives matter.
This is why.
Originally published at medium.com on February 9, 2016.