Racism is etched within the United States’ higher education system, and it has existed in various forms over centuries—particularly within the country's southern region—as a result of the dehumanizing, exploiting, and excluding of black Americans, whose free labor granted early American institutions the agency and ability to build and establish themselves. The legacy of anti-blackness and white supremacy has a particular tie to U.S. colleges and universities. As stated by historian Craig Steven Wilder, “most American colleges founded before the Civil War relied on money derived from slavery” (Ellis, Smith, 2017, para. 7). Furthermore, as hate related incidents continue to surface in the form of viral photos and videos—my very own alma mater SUNY Potsdam is one of several colleges who have battled with social media related blackface incidents in the past several years—it is apparent that campus racism is real, prevalent on campuses across the nation, and an issue that educators must troubleshoot on an individual level as well as on a campus wide scale.
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It is because of how present racism’s influence and power are in our everyday lives—as administrators may work on campuses first built by slaves—that I find it imperative for student affairs practitioners to acknowledge the role that racial relations play in negatively impacting the lives of our students of color, as well as the role that said relations play in influencing how our perceptions of the world are shaped. Remnants of the Jim Crow era are still felt by students of color who have been profiled as thieves for wearing hoodies and baggy clothing while shopping or who have entered a dining hall in a large group with other students of color and been asked to silence their laughter for being what is perceived as disruptive, which is why it is important to acknowledge that campus racism is more than the use of racial slurs but rather a combination negative feelings and implicit biases towards a campus’ community members of color. This point of acknowledgement may be difficult for some to reach, because though racism influences and impacts the lives of all individuals within the United States regardless of their racial or ethnic background, it can be difficult for non-people of color to acknowledge the advantages that they have received and the disadvantages that people of color have experienced as a result of racism’s power. There are many aspects of the all-American experience that convey to us that the United States is a country with equal opportunity. The Star Spangled Banner is a prime example, with its first verse ending with a positive “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” (Roberts, 2018) line that illustrates a country where all of its brave people—which one may assume included the black soldiers who fought at Fort McHenry in addition to their families—can exist freely. However, it is several verses lower that the less popularized line “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave” (Roberts, 2018) can be found.
Even the country’s national anthem is embedded with anti-slave rhetoric that conveys to listeners that the freedom referred to in the song only pertains to white individuals, so it should not take much for one to acknowledge that other aspects of society still possess the same hateful rhetoric that aided in the establishment of America. However, a disconnect still exists between the acts of racism that students of color experience and the failure for campus racism to be treated as the crisis that it is by all administrators and educators. This is why it is vital for scholars to rewrite American history while including the hurtful portions of it in their writings, particularly the portions of history that enslaved, targeted, and oppressed people of color.
There is not enough literature currently written to correct the damage that centuries of white narratives of black and brown-body experiences have created, and I feel that increasing the presence of literature pertaining to the experiences of students of color will aid in making this issue realer to student affairs practitioners, educators, and other staff members who have the privilege of not experiencing racism. This is why Critical Race theory (CRT) and the scholars that view legal practice and daily interactions through this theory’s lens are so valuable. Birthed from the Civil Rights Movement era of Black liberation and the fight for a seat at the (political) table, Critical Race theory serves to challenge the presence of white supremacy and systemic or institutionalized racism within social systems, whether said systems are legal, educational, or political. More specifically, Critical Race theorists work to shed light on the racialized nature of the United States’ legal traditions that aid in strengthening the country’s “racial hierarchy” and racial tensions while simultaneously decreasing the amount of power and privilege possible for people of color to attain (Delgado, 1997, p. 5). Research goals of CRT include working towards dismantling systemic racism within the United States, learning how systemic racism and the perceptions of race impact and hinder non-white individuals, tracing the country’s footprint of racism in order to convey how large of an impact it has had on people of all racial and ethnic identities, discovering and developing ways that victims of systemic racism can combat it while simultaneously representing themselves, and exploring the relationship between race, gender, and class (“Critical Race Theory (1970s-present),” n.d., p. 1-3).
Utilizing Student Development Theory to Decrease the Power and Presence of Campus Racism
The reason that this theory came to be was due to the need for black scholars to acknowledge what other non-black scholars would not, which was the fact that racism was and continues to be deeply embedded in the country’s law and legal practices (Patton et al., 2016, p. 26-27). Through the collection of narratives pertaining to the experiences of people and communities of color, CRT theorists give often unheard and suppressed voices the opportunity to be heard and tell their stories (Delgado, 1997, p. 5). The tenets of CRT, which all student affairs practitioners who have students of color on their campus would benefit from living by, embody social awareness as well as self-awareness, and acknowledgment of how society and individual actions work together to craft our current racial climate. Said tenets acknowledge the existence and strong presence of white privilege, the magnitude of the legislative power that white America possesses, and the ways that one’s identity intersects with other identities. The tenets of the theory also include the belief that individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups should reclaim their narratives by engaging in what CRT theorists refer to as “counterstorytelling” or contributing counternarratives that describe experiences of racial and social injustice, whether it be the experience of a black student on a college campus located in the bible-belt region or the experiences of a Latinx family at a local suburban grocery store. The purpose of counterstorytelling is for it to serve as a strategy that assists in restoring the lack of historical context in existence that pertains to the experiences of racially minoritized people. In addition to working towards challenging the false narratives of people of color, CRT scholars also believe in challenging cases of “colorblindness and race neutrality” that fail to acknowledge the role that whiteness plays in power attainment and social mobility (Patton et al., 2016, p. 28).
An analysis of studies that use CRT as a means to learn how microagressions and other racially motivated acts targeting students of color negatively impact said students conveys that the theory can be utilized by student affairs practitioners to: 1.) gain answers pertaining to how the issue of campus racism affects its students and 2.) learn how they can help improve this issue for their students. Existing studies that use CRT include Solórzano, Ceja, and Yosso’s Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students and Desai and Abeita’s Institutional Microaggressions at a Hispanic Serving Institution: A Diné (Navajo) Woman Utilizing Tribal Critical Race Theory through Student Activism. With Solórzano, Ceja, and Yosso’s case, a qualitative study was conducted using a focus group methodology for the purpose of exploring the impact of racial microaggressions and a racial campus climate that is negative in nature from the perspective of African American students. There were 32 participants in total, with half of the group being male and the other half being female. Through this method, it was found that the participating students felt a sense of invisibility, isolation, and self-doubt as a result of experiencing microaggressions, and that students who faced stresses pertaining to microaggressions created counter-spaces or safe spaces that promoted the uplifting of black culture and challenged negative notions pertaining to the black race (Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000, p. 65-69)
With Desai and Abeita, a case study was conducted on a female Navajo student activist to gain insight regarding her experiences with racial microaggressions at Southwest University as a Native American student. Furthermore, the study served to explore how the student’s role as an activist and youth activist group member aided in her ability to combat campus microaggressions. An analysis of transcripts derived from weekly meetings and semi-structured interviews pertaining to the student’s culture and activism was conducted, with researchers discovering that the participating student felt a sense of exclusion from her campus and found herself unable to integrate into the campus community due to the number of campus murals and artwork present that honored white settlers (Desai & Abeita, 2017). Both of these studies were able to gain insight from students pertaining to their racial identity on a level that I am not sure they would have been able to penetrate without first understanding microaggressions and how prominent they are, as well as understanding why CRT exists in the first place.
In addition to exposing the presence of systemic racism within the United States’ legal systems, CRT also serves as a great tool for educators to utilize in order to learn how to best cater to students from racial and ethnic backgrounds that differ from their own. When attempting to adopt or develop a CRT lens, administrators must be familiarized with a number of key terms related to racial inequality and the non-white experience. This list of terms includes white privilege, microaggressions, institutionalized racism, social construction, intersectionality, and anti-essentialism. By building this social awareness vernacular, student affairs practitioners will also begin to develop a sense agency to intervene and ignite change when in the presence of racial inequality.
Issues pertaining to race often arise on college campuses, and we need to be prepared to work through said issues. It is common for student demonstrations to occur on university campuses, as college student groups often congregate to voice their collective concerns, advocate for their rights, and fight against a perceived common evil in the name of activism and a greater good. Data collected by the Higher Education Research Institute University of California shows that the rate at which black student participants planned to engage in campus activism—more specifically, protesting—spiked from 10.5 percent to 16 percent from 2015 to 2016 (New, 2016, para. 4)
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A parallel exists between the increased interest and intent to participate in political demonstrations among black students and the time period that which this increase took place in. The year of 2015 was also the year that a string of protests occurred at the University of Missouri (Mizzou), breaking headlines and conveying on a nationwide scale the importance of colleges and universities taking a stance against racism and having strategies set in place to address hate crimes. These protests are a prime example of underrepresented students—who felt unsafe, unheard by their administrative leaders, and discriminated against—taking social reconstruction into their own hands by combating systemic racism, white supremacy, and anti-blackness in order to improve their experiences as well as the experiences of future underrepresented students.
In the wake of Michael Brown’s death—the 2014 case of a black eighteen year-old Missouri teen who was shot and killed by a white police officer, which sparked the use of the slogan “hands up, don’t shoot” due to witnesses stating his hands were up as gunshots were fired at him (Westfall, 2014, para. 4)—that caused an uproar of violent protests in Missouri, racial tensions had already reached a boiling point in the state.
When analyzing the string of racially motivated campus incidents that continue to make headlines, it should be no question as to why we as student affairs practitioners must sharpen our lens of social awareness while also ensuring that we are empathetic, intentional, and non-problematic with our conversations pertaining to race. Knowledge of CRT key terms such as “microaggressions” (acts or statements of discrimination, privilege, tone-deafness, racial insensitivity, or implicit bias that perpetuate racial stereotypes and the oppression of non-white individuals) (Delgado et al., 2012, p. 151), “white privilege” (the political, social, economic advantages experienced by white people in contrast to the disadvantages of non-white individuals based on their racial identities) (Delgado et al., 2012, p. 78), “intersectionality” (the understanding that an individual is made up of several identities, and that no one identity of theirs categorizes them within a specific group or people) (Delgado et al., 2012, p. 51-52), and “institutionalized racism” (the obstacles that exist within various institutions which non-white people of color must work past and overcome in order to achieve the same as their white peers) (Haney-López, 1999, p. 1727) could aid in ensuring that administrators are responding to racially related incidents and issues while acknowledging their implicit bias, the role their identity plays in day-to-day interactions, and the realities of non-white individuals.
Due to the fact that CRT grew from the Civil Rights Movement, this theory would be the most relevant theory for college leaders to become familiarized with to help them learn how to address hate crimes and support anti-racist activism. Though other theories may explore identity as a whole, non-white racial identities—particularly within the United States—are unique and require the history of narratives pertaining racial inequality that CRT provides in order to fully convey the reasoning behind why students of color may perform, respond, and behave the way that they do. Furthermore, college leaders must understand that refraining from becoming well-versed in CRT-related dialogue can negatively impact their campus communities as well as their own job security. The lack of administrative support shown towards the black student outcry against campus racism—failing to address acts of bias and blatant racism including a swastika being drawn on the wall of a dorm bathroom with feces and racial slurs being yelled at a group of black students as they rehearsed for a performance (Svrluga, 2015, p. 1)—is what led the Mizzou student activist group “ConcernedStudent1950” to develop and release their list of demands for Mizzou leaders, one of them calling for the removal of their college president, Timothy Wolfe. The administrative responses—or lack thereof—is what also led student Jonathan Butler of Mizzou to start a hunger strike, which he promised to end only after President Wolfe stepped down from his position. Students quickly learned of the hunger strike and began to stand with Butler and the call for the reform of Mizzou’s racial relations that he stood for. Among these students were members of the football team, who threatened to sit out of a game that would cost the university one million dollars to forfeit due to contract logistics (Bump, 2015, p. 1).
There are consequences to contributing to racial injustice, and refraining from supporting, protecting, and advocating for students of color is unethical and potentially career damaging for student affairs practitioners. The failure to address several hate-related incidents, combined with President Wolfe’s lack of conveyed empathy and interest in attaining emotional literacy pertaining to social justice issues—during a demonstration led by a group of 11 black students which served to raise awareness of the campus’ racial tension and presence of, President Wolfe could be seen smiling and laughing at the protesters from his homecoming parade car as students of color shared emotional testimonies through tears (Spike Lee, 2016, 18:40)—resulted in Wolfe stepping down as the university’s president. With him followed Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, who also stepped down.
As viral videos of racially offensive and bigoted incidents continue to surface and bring negative media attention to colleges and universities across the nation, we must realize that it is no longer acceptable to drag one’s feet on the journey towards social justice and fair treatment of campus members of color. Campus racism is an issue that administrators should develop potential response and damage control strategies for (while referencing CRT related content) in case a hate related incident occurs on their campus. I believe that this is much more effective than hiding behind the fear of change or the sluggishness that may arise in the wake of needed support and solidarity.
- Bump, P. (2015, November 9). How the Missouri football team just down its university president. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/11/09/missouri-football-players-and-the-untapped-political-power-of-the-college-student-athlete/?utm_term=.1c0b4fa889bf
- Critical Race Theory (1970s-present). Purdue University: Purdue Online Writing Lab. Retrieved from https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/writing_in_literature/literary_theory_and_schools_of_criticism/critical_race_theory.html
- Delgado, R. (1997). Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. California Law Review, Inc. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/ecoffey/Downloads/Critical_Race_Theory_The_Key_Writings_th.pdf
- Delgado, R., Stefancic, J. (2012). Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press. Retrieved from https://uniteyouthdublin.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/richard_delgado_jean_stefancic_critical_race_thbookfi-org-1.pdf
- Desai, S. R., & Abeita, A. (2017). Institutional Microaggressions at a Hispanic Serving Institution: A Diné (Navajo) Woman Utilizing Tribal Critical Race Theory through Student Activism. Equity & Excellence in Education, 50(3), 275–289. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1152358&site=eds-live&scope=site
- Ellis, K., Smith, S. (2017, September 4). Shackled Legacy: History shows slavery helped build many U.S. colleges and universities. APMReports. Retrieved from https://www.apmreports.org/story/2017/09/04/shackled-legacy
- Haney-López, I. (1999). Institutional Racism: Judicial Conduct and a New Theory of Racial Discrimination. Berkeley Law Scholarship Repository. Retrieved from https://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2819&context=facpubs
- Lee, S. (Producer, Director). 2016. 2 Fists Up. United States: ESPN
- New, J. (2016, February 11). Get Ready for More Protests. InsideHigherEd. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/11/survey-finds-nearly-1-10-freshmen-plan-participating-campus-protests
- Patton, Lori D.; Renn, Kristen A.; Guido , Florence M.; Quaye, Stephen John. Student Development in College. Wiley. Kindle Edition.
- Roberts, M. (2018). What are the lyrics to the US National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner? Classic FM. Retrieved from https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/periods-genres/national-anthems/us-national-anthem-star-spangled-banner-lyrics/
- Solórzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students. Journal of Negro Education, 68( 1/ 2), 60– 73.
- Svrluga, S. (2015, November 9). U. Missouri President, Chancellor Resign Over Handling of Racial Incidents. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/11/09/missouris-student-government-calls-for-university-presidents-removal/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f429dea78c95
- Westfall, J. (2014, August 15). Watch: Police say security tape shows Michael Brown committing a robbery. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-nn-na-watch-video-michael-brown-robbery-20140815-story.html
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