As protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement gain traction across the nation, one issue has become glaringly obvious: though many may support the cause of Black Lives Matter, they have not been properly educated about race and social justice in the US. In fact, I would argue that most people have not taken the time to educate themselves on issues of race and its various intersections. The burden of education should never be on Black people; it should always be on us. We ought to actively read Black authors in an attempt to address our own biases and seek resources necessary to supplement other tangible actions, like donating and signing petitions.
However, in my experience, people either don’t know where to start with literature, or aren’t motivated enough to take initiative. This is where institutions of higher education come into play. While universities and colleges have the ability to create change, most institutions have not adequately incorporated inclusive education targeted towards racial justice, nor addressed their role in systemic oppression. Institutions of higher education in the US are problematic for several reasons, and, fundamentally, the very institution of the university is paradoxical in nature: while higher education is popularly considered an equalizing force, it in fact serves to reify and perpetuate inequality and access barriers.
Many universities market themselves as diverse, inclusive, and progressive, but remain problematic in their complicity of capitalism and systemic racism. For example, private universities that don’t offer adequate financial aid make it difficult for marginalized students to attend. In addition, legacy admissions will favor reputation and money over the potential a less privileged candidate may have. Even the use of standardized testing in admissions gives privileged students an advantage as they have access to resources that many others do not.
It’s a fact that universities are irrevocably linked to colonialism and white supremacy, too. Yet, despite the exploitation and genocide that built these campuses, higher education institutions are reluctant to admit their history. In March 2020, Tulane University removed the Victory Bell, an iconic fixture, from its campus after discovering that it was once used on slave plantations. The school issued a statement claiming that the origins of the bell were previously unknown, and had they been known, the bell never would have been a part of the campus. Acknowledging the reality of Tulane’s troubling past was just one small step in the right direction.
But it’s not enough. Tulane was built on the backs of slaves, named for a white supremacist, and is a predominantly white institution in a predominantly Black city. This is a history that is rarely mentioned and Paul Tulane continues to be glorified by the school (the scholarship I received is even named after him, a fraught legacy I am ambivalent about inadvertently perpetuating). The university needs to do better; simply removing a bell doesn’t cut it.
Tulane does not stand alone in its performative allyship. Yale University employed similarly superficial methods when Calhoun College, a residential college, was renamed in honor of Grace Hopper. Calhoun, a renowned white supremacist and slave owner is perhaps the antithesis to a woman such as Grace Hopper. Hopper, in contrast, was a prominent computer scientist, Navy admiral, and epitomized strength as she broke into a male-dominated field with incredible success. And yet symbols of Calhoun and other white supremacist figures continue to decorate the campus to this day.
Often, after a troubling, racist, incident occurs on campus, universities will even go so far as to release hopeful messages promising that change is coming. However, we rarely ever see change beyond these superficial actions.
Ultimately, such hollow actions like these reveal that attempts to condemn problematic pasts likely stem from a desire to avoid backlash. While they may be important steps towards progress, they are neither well-intentioned nor adequate. However, genuine acknowledgment and condemnation of colonial pasts do provide a monumental shift in making campus environments more comfortable for students of color.
Universities also don’t appropriately build lessons of social justice into their classes. Some universities, including Tulane, have introduced race and inclusion requirements into their core curriculum. These requirements make classes that focus on marginalized communities mandatory for graduation. The education that these classes provide is a crucial transition towards ensuring that students are properly educated about social issues and that they have access to important resources. Such classes also force students to confront their own internal biases and engage in necessary conversations. However, these requirements are not as widespread as they ought to be. While pretty much every university will offer courses focused on marginalized groups and their experiences, most are not required.
Additionally, while classes dedicated to race and inclusion are crucial, this education shouldn’t be a one and done event. As a student at Tulane, I’ve seen privileged students treat these race and inclusion courses as blow-off classes and slip into problematic behavior outside of the classroom. Many people I know even complain that race and inclusion classes are taking up space in their schedule and that they’re not learning anything. This is why the tough discussions need to be incorporated into every single class, no matter its subject. We should not be limiting discussions on oppression to specific classes. We need to be discussing how systemic oppression lurks in every aspect of life and academia. Because it certainly does, and some people haven’t realized that yet.
I propose that we talk about how technology can be racist in our computer science classes and how capitalism oppresses people of color in our business classes. Even journalism classes need to engage in discourse on how Black journalists are consistently asked to write only Black stories and how objectivity is often employed as a tool of white supremacy under the guise of neutrality.
Ultimately, in their current state, institutions of higher education remain complicit in the system of oppression. Before tweeting out political hashtags in another performative show of allyship, universities should work towards progress by addressing their own long histories of racism, as well as incorporating antiracism into their regular curriculums – even when it means holding themselves accountable.