On President Obama’s inauguration day back in 2009, Fox news proclaimed, “America has transcended race.” For a generation born in the 1990’s who had grown up with superstar black athletes on their screens -making millions- and had never seen a colored water fountain, the myth of a post-racial society was believable.
But since then the same generation watched Daniel Pantaleo kill Eric Garner on Staten Island after placing him (Eric) in a chokehold and after hearing Eric say 11 times he could not breathe. Then there was Darren Wilson who shot Michael Brown despite the fact, according to three witnesses, Brown’s hands were up. Finally there was Dylann Roof who murdered nine innocent blacks in a South Carolina church.
In School Daze, an old school Spike Lee film Dap, played by Laurence Fishburne, screams to the students in the film to “Wake up! Wake up.” In real life there is no Dap. But these spectacles of racial violence had the “Dap” effect on today’s black university students.
Incidents on campus provided a wake-up call as well. At Bucknell University in Georgia, a black faculty member found a racist note written on whiteboard hanging on his door. Nearby at Georgia Institute of Technology, also in September, a black woman reported three women yelled racial slurs at her from a window of their frat house. At UCLA back in October, students held a “Kanye Western” party where they wore baggy pants and used blackface.
At the University of Missouri, students complained for months of racial slurs but nothing was done until the football team joined the protest refusing to play “their game.”
These racial incidents operate like a wall. They say to blacks “You don’t belong here.” They say to blacks “The wall of segregationist policies may be torn down but there is still a wall up in our minds.” Blacks are still perceived by many whites as outsiders, academically inferior people who are on campus not because of merit but because of affirmative action. And as the “Kanye Western” example suggests they are perceived as outsiders in a deep cultural sense as well.
For these incidents to take place there must be something in the environment of these campuses to enable the racism. These incidents reflect a culture of indifference on the part of predominantly white school administrators to the plight of black students.
The current unrest on campus that is taking place, represents nothing less than a second civil rights movement, an effort to tear down the walls of racism which still exist within the mindset of too many in academia and in American society at large. Now universities need to wake up as well –they must take diversity more seriously than ever before.
One way to see whether schools take diversity seriously is to look at the attrition rate of black students at the university. At many schools, especially law schools, blacks are disproportionately dismissed from the school for “academic reasons.” Claude M. Steele has provided evidence that the major reason for this is less the inadequacy of the black student than the problem of “stereotype threat.” Stereotype threat becomes an issue in a university culture where blacks feel already devalued by low expectations on the part of their teachers and peers.
Another test to look at is the percentage of black students at the school. As a national pattern in recent years that percentage has dramatically declined. Can administrators who do nothing about this decline say they truly care about “diversity?”
Diversity as practiced in too many schools is not part of the solution – it is part of the wall that blocks out real progress. Diversity is a part of the wall when we think of it in terms of changing the image of the school rather than changing the institution itself. Hiring a new diversity director, for example, is good but not enough. Diversity must come to mean a commitment to change how we admit students of color, how we value them, how we change the curriculum to reflect the needs of students of color, how we not only hire black professors but how we pay them. Dubois talked about a wall. But Dr. King talked about a table at which the “sons of slaves could sit down with the sons of former slave owners.” Diversity must become more than a cosmetic, it must become a process of transforming the culture of the modern university. Then diversity will cease to be a wall. It will become the table of Dr. King.
Donald Jones is Professor of Law at the University of Miami. His most recent book is Fear of a Hip Hop Planet: America’s New Dilemma (Praeger 2013).