People seem to think that colleges are full of progressive thinkers and liberals; we’re told that the greatest threats to college students are alcohol abuse and frat parties. The reality is, students of color face a lot more issues than social pressure – we face social discrimination. If you ask folks – particularly at brand name universities with 4-dollar-sign tuition rates – what the representation of various groups of people of color is like at their schools, the answer is probably going to be “it’s pretty white.”
While lack of representation is a distinct facet of racism, it is irrevocably intertwined with personal instances of discrimination. We’ve obviously heard of discrimination occurring in primary and secondary schools and between grown adults, but colleges are often left out of the conversation. We want to believe that our institutions are safe for people of all walks of life, but history is very clearly contradictory to that ideal.
Campuses have ugly histories of blatant discrimination and harassment by both the institution itself (including universities that participated in the slave trade in the 1800s) and by its students.
Most recently, Black students at American University in Washington, DC, for the last week have been suffering in a fresh wave of racism at the hands of white males on-campus. The fall semester at AU just started on August 29. Now, less than 3 weeks in, Black students are reporting a series of racist acts (including physical abuse and vandalism) being committed within residence halls.
AU’s Black Student Alliance released a statement calling out the University’s poor and inefficient response to not only these recent incidents, but ones that occurred last year both in-person and online over mass social media platforms like Yik Yak.
The University’s own official response is facing criticism for its ignorance of the racist motivations behind the harassment. Students have pointed out that the most offensive of the acts has been the throwing of rotten bananas at Black students, a very clear, very offensive, and very backwards display of anti-Black racism.
Students also responded to the harassment by putting up signs like this one, in addition to using the hashtag #TheRealAU to keep up with protests by the BSA and the continuing attention being paid to the university’s response.
In addition to AU’s controversy, several other universities have already had instances this early in the semester. A presumed student identified as Paige Shoemaker wearing a Kansas State University sweater came under popular fire after a Snapchat of hers went viral. In the photo she was pictured using a black-colored skin care mask as black-face with a comment using the n-word. KSU said that the student was not currently enrolled in the school and condemned the photo.
At Belmont University, located in Nashville, a freshman shared a photo of the Philadelphia Eagles raising their fists to the national anthem and said they all ought to have bullets in their heads. God is real, because that kid was expelled. Belmont University also publicly condemned all racism and bigotry on their campus.
Now, all these responses are nice, but the question is: are they effective? Racism has been occurring on the steps of institutions of higher education for centuries now. No statement has made any difference. People’s lives are still very much in danger – just look back at Mizzou (the University of Missouri).
In November of 2015 there were serious death threats made against all Black students. Anonymous threats went out over Yik Yak threatening gun violence. This was the response of a white male student to what had been a little over a year of vocal protest by the Black community at Mizzou against the University’s silence and apathy on the extrajudicial killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO (about 2 hours away from the campus). The protests had come to a point where students demanded a resignation from the system president Tim Wolfe, who was the figurehead responsible for the lack of action.
Yet people did not take the threats seriously. Black students were emailing their professors about sincere concern for their lives. Some professors did not give any leniency in spite of the threat of violence. In spite of legitimate fear. If those Yik Yak threats had said there would be a bomb on-campus, the professors would have canceled class.
And this is just an abridged and widely incomplete collection. Many aggressions against students of color get swept under the rug. They rarely make national news. Why? Well, the system protects its own.