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Racial tensions still simmer on campus

A new book explores creating a more inclusive college climate for minority students
University Business, May 2016
In his book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, Lawrence Ross says recent high-profile events represent a fraction of the racial conflicts occurring on campuses.
In his book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, Lawrence Ross says recent high-profile events represent a fraction of the racial conflicts occurring on campuses.

Two students were expelled and dozens more disciplined when a video emerged last March of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter singing racist songs with lyrics about lynchings.

In the fall, the University of Missouri saw numerous protests over the treatment of black students and the failure of administrators to address the problem. President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin ultimately resigned.

In his book Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), Lawrence Ross says these events represent a fraction of the conflicts occurring on campuses. Ross, a lecturer, writer and social media expert, says even he was shocked at what he found.

“I thought I knew a lot of the information that was out there,” he says. “But the more I dug, the deeper it went. It was mind-blowing to me even as I was writing it.”

You focus on fraternities and sororities as a microcosm of the real world.

Yes. The genesis of the book began with the fraternities and sororities. I’ve been to nearly 600 different colleges and universities doing lectures. I would keep track of all the things that were happening, the overt racism amongst Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic organizations on Martin Luther King’s birthday or Halloween or Black History Month.

But, at the same time, students of color were coming to me after my lectures and talking about their experiences. It was the combination of those two things that created the overall motif.

It’s less about the variability of the students who come in every four years. Students are always different, but the institutions, including the fraternities and sororities, have not done a good job at attacking the problem. In fact, they basically don’t address it. That’s pretty much the problem and why it continues.

With the Missouri and Oklahoma cases, we were told they are “isolated incidents.” But your book shows that’s not the case and hasn’t been the case.

We have a very short-term memory. What typically happens is a pattern I call “the three-ize:” individualize, trivialize and minimize. For example, at the University of Oklahoma where the guys were singing about lynching African Americans, the fraternity tried to individualize it. They said, “It’s only these two guys at this chapter. It’s nothing else. Don’t look deeper.”

Then they minimize it by saying, “Hey, we checked and it turns out it’s just five or six chapters. But you know something? It’s not anything that’s systemic.”

And then they trivialize it. That’s when people on the outside say, “Well, they’re immature kids. What do you expect? I mean, how frivolous is a fraternity or sorority?”

When that happens it basically dismisses the concerns of students of color. And it repeats over and over again.

In Blackballed, there’s an overwhelming amount of information about incidents of campus racism. You have to go overboard in chronicling these incidents to get people to understand that it’s not anecdotal or just a fluke. And it’s not just the south, it’s actually pretty widespread geographically. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials and Generation Z—they all are pretty much doing the same things.

The reaction from administrators is often about “starting a conversation.”

Right. Talking about racism is icky to people. I have two degrees and that’s the best word I can come up with. So we tend to deflect. The easiest way to deflect, particularly if you are an administrator, is to have a conversation, let people vent and then basically take no action. You hope and pray that maybe these things will go away, which trivializes it.

In 2014, about 700 college presidents were interviewed by Inside Higher Ed. They were asked about the racial climate on their campus. Close to 90 percent said that the racial climate was either good or excellent. Then, in 2015 over 100 campuses erupted in protests over campus racism. But they still didn’t learn their lesson. In 2016, they did the exact same survey and 2 percent more presidents said that the racial climates on their campus were either good or excellent. You can see there’s a disconnect between how administrators sees their campuses versus the realities of campus life for students of color.

Is that willful ignorance?

I think it’s willful ignorance and conscientious stupidity. It’s one of those things where, again, institutions skew toward the status quo. Institutions and businesses are risk-averse. They don’t want to deal with controversial topics like racism. And they tend to deal with them only when they are forced to deal with them. Then they are held accountable for either the lack of support or the lack of reaction.

Is that what happened in Missouri?

Yes. They were completely befuddled about how to address racism. They had no idea. The president came from the corporate world. When you try to run a university like a business, you ignore some of the qualitative issues on a campus that are not really bottom-line issues.

Now, contrast that with the University of Oklahoma where [President] David Boren completely understood the values of the university, and he banned the fraternity from the campus and punished those responsible. He made clear that those actions did not align with the overall values and principles of the university.

Two very different reactions.

One is attuned to the needs of all their students and one is not. And one paid the price. But it is still happening around the country. We saw Mary Spellman, the dean of students at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles, who had to resign over how minorities were treated. There is still turmoil at University or Rochester right now. It’s one of those campaigns where you can tell that a committee tried to come up with some type of reaction to campus racism. It lacks a level of authenticity and the students aren’t buying it.

You suggest a “racial temperature” metric that could help parents decide whether to send their children to a particular school. How would that work? I think there has to be some type of metric where you can look at a variety of things. What is the student population on campus? Are there spaces on campus for African-American, Latino, Asian students?

Too often we forget that most of the students of color are coming from poorer communities. And then we say, come to this predominately white institution, and there is no space for you. There is nothing for your connections in terms of your culture, your history. There is nothing unless you create things like cultural houses or maybe African-American dorms and things like that.

Or unless you are an athlete.

Yes. One of the things at the University of Missouri is that African American men are only 3.3 percent of the population. They are 65 percent of the football team and 72 percent of the basketball team. That tells me that, basically, most of the African-American men on campus play sports.

I’m all for athletes being able to use sports in order to get a college education. But why aren’t you going deeper into these communities to find more African-American men to put on your campus that are not generating revenue for you?

In my lectures I often show a picture of a wedding where everyone is white except for one black guy who is standing there looking straight at the camera. On most campuses the students of color are like the black guy. They are at the wedding. They’ve been invited. But they are not really connecting with everybody else who is having a great old time.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I am. One reason I write books like this is to make my book obsolete. I’m very much an optimist in terms of being able to get rid of things in society that are pathologies, and racism is a pathology. My hope is that when people read the book they’ll say, “OK. Here’s my call to action. This is what I want to do.” I’m open to all ideas to be able to do that.

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