In the frigid Wisconsin winter of 1969, black students at the state’s flagship university walked from campus to the state capitol in Madison, shouting “On strike, shut it down!” and “Support the black demands!” They were flanked by National Guardsmen who had been called in earlier that day by the school’s chancellor and state Governor at the time to contain the raucous protest behavior.
Across the nation, students at San Francisco State, Duke University, the City College of New York, and University of Illinois joined the Badgers in solidarity, echoing their demands for Black Studies programs, cultural centers, and increased faculty members and administrators of color on their respective campuses. It was on this February night nearly forty-seven years ago that the Black Campus Movement was perhaps its most visible, most vocal, and most demanding.
Unfolding alongside the nationwide 1960s and 1970s Black Power Movement, the higher education related demands of black student activists were met and executed in influential ways, including: curriculum shifts toward more non-Eurocentric scholarship, increased hiring of black administrators, efforts to attract and retain graduate students of color, and the establishment of cultural centers that practically connected to the black experience. Success continued as more than one thousand colleges created Black Studies programs or centers, the percentage of black faculty and students nearly quadrupled, and institutions began to openly and enthusiastically profess a desire for equality and diversity.
The Modern Day Black Campus Movement
Today, we see a new wave of activist efforts among students of color on college campuses. Unfortunately, like their predecessors in the Black Campus Movement, some students of color continue to be vilified, criminalized, or infantilized for voicing their experiences with on-campus racism, exclusionary policies, and administrative inaction. And like their predecessors, the efforts of these students seek to shock colleges and universities into recognizing that the antiquated higher education policies in place leave much to be desired when it comes to promoting and valuing diversity.
Still today, student activism is occurring in the face of an expanding civil rights movement. In just the past year, the U.S. has seen video-confirmed police shootings of unarmed men, open hostility towards Muslims, politically popular rhetoric casting Latinos as subversive and dangerous, and the Charleston shooting—the deadliest hate crime against black Americans in seventy-five years. Being content with the status quo or ignoring the presence of unjust systems is incongruous with a meaningful and critical education. Not only is there moral strength in exposing injustice, but it is anti-intellectual to ignore the presence of unjust systems or to respond with complacency toward racism, sexism, religious intolerance, and sexual assault.
Action is imminent, and yet despite these cited facts, there are countless cases of university administrators dismissing these cases of discontent in condescending ways. In November, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University announced via a letter to his students that his school is “not a daycare.” Their complaints about safe spaces, inclusion, and equity, are but the musings of entitled children—children that are ungrateful for what they’ve been given. Similarly, after University of Missouri former president Tim Wolfe was forced to resign on account of mishandled racial incidents, Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder, while acknowledging that racism has no place at a public university, called protesters a “dissent few” and cautioned against allowing them to dictate university policy. He then maintained that he could not “ignore the necessity of law and order” at our universities, as if student protesters were participants in some sort of criminal faction.
Tactics to Subvert Grievances
Students are not protesting a mere collection of unfortunate incidents. In fact, one survey finds that 38 percent of black people report hearing some sort of racist or demeaning speech directed towards them every day.
Students of color and their allies are fighting against a university culture in which the truth of “racism” is too often buried in euphemism, replaced by more comfortable language such as “unfriendly” or “alienating.” Whether racism comes in the form of a fellow student shouting racial epithets at black Mizzou students, or of campus police disproportionately arresting and detaining students of color, or of curricular designs that require multiple semesters of Euro-centric classes but none about multiculturalism, the refusal of colleges to admit their wrongs reveals their true misguided priorities.
The dog whistle politics of higher education’s leadership intentionally mischaracterizes students’ grievances. As students are told that their experiences are “perceived” rather than real, and that their tactics are “disruptive” rather than important, many college administrators are guilty of one of the most dangerous manifestations of white (often, white male) privilege: dictating which experiences of minorities are real, relevant, and worthy of their time. It’s easy to dismiss encounters with racism as “sensitivity” or “entitlement” when you are not the subject of that racism. It’s also difficult for colleges to balance their reverence for tradition with the underlying fact that the vast majority of predominantly white campuses were not built for people of color – and actually required the exclusion of minority groups.
Colleges encourage students to vigorously educate themselves, cast off political apathy, innovate unapologetically, and yet would prefer for students of color to quiet themselves when it comes to challenging the offensive histories of certain institutions or submit to the intransigence of inequity. Some have characterized the desires of students as unrealistic. But it is not unreasonable to expect that universities make a good faith effort to live up to the diverse and inclusive environment that is portrayed in admissions brochures; to demand that a degree from their college means that the graduate has some knowledge of and relationship with someone of a different background; to require that minority students have as much of a chance at achieving a “sense of belonging” on campus as their white peers.
Despite the similarities between the Black Campus Movement of the past and today’s campus protests, there exist some stark differences that reflect cultural shifts within society. Today’s students are attempting to advance some challenging messages on their own campuses by combatting the outdated and flawed mentality that silence in the face of pain and racism equates to “toughness.”
This silence has been broken by student activists today. They are exposing the closely held beliefs of some of their fellow students that deem it appropriate to ridicule cultures through popular fraternity party themes. They are questioning why students of color can complete a degree without encountering a professor who looks like them. And they are challenging false notions that a college education is sufficient, even if it does not always require graduates to think critically and empathetically about the histories and experiences of diverse peoples. In short, these protesters are seeking to ensure that universities fulfill their own stated goals of preparing thoughtful, intelligent, and productive graduates to succeed in a changing world. The smartest university administrators will not belittle or dismiss them, but instead seek to listen and collaborate.
Photo Credit: Flickr, Stephen Melkisethian, Silver Spring #ReclaimMLK Sit-In 26, http://bit.ly/1OzbAs7.