Jim Crow University?: The State of Racial Tolerance on America’s Campuses
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan
Racial slurs; racist graffiti; taunts and jeers; nooses hanging from doors; and blackface. No, I am not talking about the South circa 1960, but the climate of America’s colleges and universities. If you look around the country, it would seem that some want to take our colleges back to the Jim Crow era when schools and curriculum were white only.
In the last two months of the mockery of post-race America has been quite evident. The “N word” was scrawled on a dorm room and a bathroom at Fordham University. That same month, students at University of Wisconsin-Madison hurled bottles and racial slurs at two African American students who had the audacity to walk past THEIR fraternity house on THEIR campus. At Cornell University, black students walking through campus faced a barrage of racial epithets, flying bottles and catcalls of “Trayvon.” At the Ohio State University, since April, racist and anti-religious epithets have been found on a dorm room door and within the community, including the defacement of a mural of President Barack Obama. These incidents followed the appearance of “Long Live Zimmerman” on a campus building.
For white students the college experience is defined by parties, football games, and new experiences; for students of color it is one often defined by hostility, racist violence, and the same old experiences. Last year, “All N-word’s must die” was found at Williams College. At University of Alabama, a white student screamed a racial slur at a white student, with slurs popping up on campus sidewalks. At Murray State, a faculty member chastised a black student for arriving 15 minutes late to a film screening, noting, “slaves never show up on time.” And the list of incidences goes on and on. This is the sort of racism and violence that has become all too common at America’s liberal institutions of higher education, those places often praised as the breeding ground for the post-racial millennial generation.
Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans also face an increasingly racially hostile environment evidence in cowboy and Indian parties, anti-immigrant chants at basketball games, and countless other examples. While certainly more visible as a result of the power of social media, racism is obviously nothing new to America’s colleges and universities. Whether looking at the history of integration or the practice of “ghetto parties,” institutions of higher education have a long history of racial injustice.
Students of color and faculty of color experience this history each and every day. According to Howard J. Ehrlich, director of The Prejudice Institute, between 850,000 and one million students (roughly 25 percent of students of color and five percent of white students) experience racially and ethnically-based violence (name calling, verbal aggression, harassing phone calls and “other forms of psychological intimidation”) each year. And this only reflects what is reported and what is seen. As Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin have discovered with Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage, white students use the n-word and tell racist jokes with frequency, a reality that impacts the culture and environment of America’s colleges and universities.
The Jim Crow signs remain visible even as conservatives whine about liberal universities and the discrimination of conservative students. I haven’t seen any Bigots and Liberal parties, or groups of conservative student subjected to catcalls and slurs. There hasn’t been an assault on white history and literature, which remain central to the college experience.
It is also increasingly difficult for ethnic studies, evidence in the attacks on Mexican American Studies in Arizona or the recent blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Excoriated as a “cause not a course of student,” and denounced as “promoting resentment toward a race or class of people” the white only signs are being constructed in classrooms and in college communities throughout the country. These unwelcome signs demonstrate a lack of commitment to and value in diversity, but also how the presence of students of color and the practices of African American and other ethnic programs challenges the very privileges of whiteness.
“What I’ve learned most explicitly about the often racist depictions of Back Studies at primarily White institutions, is that it is a by-product of the on-going project of the discipline to make explicit connections to the work that we do and the communities of folks that exist beyond the four walls of the classroom,” notes Mark Anthony Neal. “Even as some Black Studies faculty are no invested in such a project–and such a project looks very different now than it did during the 1960s, Black Studies continues to reject that idea that it exists in a vacuum.” The continued attacks on the fields of ethnic studies and students of color makes this all too clear.