My first experience of racism at college was ironically, off campus. I was a freshman attending my first house party at the primarily white Santa Clara University, a private college near San Jose, Calif. When I got there, the party was packed. But before I could walk in the door, I was asked by a white student who physically stood between my path and the entrance to the party, “Do you even go here?”
As I took out my student ID card to show her, I said, “Yes, I go here. Are you asking me because I’m black?” She was mortified, mumbled something and walked back to her friends.
This was one of many microagressions (unintentional insults made by people who are unaware of the hidden messages they are communicating) my black classmates and I experienced while attending college. As a black student, I noticed a huge difference in how I was treated and how my white classmates were treated by each other, by faculty and even by parents when they attended events on campus.
While college attendance rates for black students have been on the rise for more than a decade, the fight for respect on campus is still ongoing.
Last year, we heard about the administration at University of Missouri-Columbia, better known as Mizzou, which ignored the complaints of black students who were afraid to show their faces on campus after a series of racist incidents.
And here in California, the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, where education is supposed to be more progressive and diverse, the story is no different.
After a black San Jose State University (SJSU) student was bullied by three white students for months with racial slurs and a bicycle U-lock was clamped around his neck, an all-white jury found them ‘not guilty’ of the hate-crime charges that had been filed against them on Feb. 22. Students used the hashtag #BlackUnderAttack to rally around the issue and spread news about their protest.
At the same time this was happening, students at Cal State Long Beach tweeted their support for a young black student who felt threatened when a male classmate flashed a knife at her during a class lecture. Under the hashtag #BlackAtLB, they shared an image that read in all caps “PROTECT BLACK WOMEN AT ALL COSTS.”
But it isn’t just about trending on Twitter. Students have been rallying together to demand specific policy changes that they think will help make them feel safer on campus.
On Apr. 13, tweets poured in from across the nation documenting campus protests that were part of a National Day of Action to demand an end to campus racism and student debt, organized by the groups Black Liberation Collective and #MillionStudentMarch.
As a recent grad who is still involved in campus activism, I know that students are doing some really amazing work and I want people to listen to what they’re saying. So I spoke to leaders from several black student organizations in California and asked them what they’d like to see implemented. This is what they said:
- Stricter anti-discrimination policies
Schools should never tolerate harassment of students based on ethnicity, religion or gender, but as we saw in the ‘not guilty’ verdict in the case at SJSU, that isn’t always the case.
At SJSU, the black student organization called BUG (Black Unity Group) has publicly demanded that SJSU adopt a zero-tolerance policy in cases of racial harassment, in response to the bicycle U-lock incident.
“Black students would feel [safer] knowing that there is a standard policy set forth by the university,” said Brianna Leon, a student at SJSU who is an active member of BUG. “A lot of times students are passive and they don’t say anything. If the university made them aware of the policy, people would be more likely to come forward.”
- More cross-cultural learning
Black student organizations are also demanding that their schools create or invest in training programs and courses to help every student and faculty member understand and respect the many cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and identities represented on campus.
San Diego State University offers an optional cultural competency certificate program for any student interested in “having the ability to recognize and respond to the diversity of the world around you and to make better decisions based on that understanding.”
“Growing up, we have U.S. history but we’re not taught our own history,” said Leon, who thinks the cultural competency classes should be required of all students. “We should be taking other kinds of history [classes]. Once we’re more aware of each other and our cultures, we would probably treat each other better.”
- Less police, more student oversight
None of the students we spoke to want to see more police on their campus, saying student committees can challenge decisions made by school administrations, who may prioritize institutional interests over student interests.
“Student oversight committees have the potential to put power in students hands rather than bureaucratic administrators,” said Blake Simons, a student at University of California, Berkeley who currently serves as the Communications Director of the Afrikan Black Coalition. “Oftentimes those in control of the universities, such as the UC Regents, come from elite backgrounds and consequently don’t have what’s best in mind for students and society at large.”
- More black “safe spaces”
Earlier this year, the Black Student Union at Oberlin University asked for the creation of exclusively black “safe spaces” on campus and were denied by the university president. Conservative media outlets were enraged by the BSU request, which they deemed “segregation.”
Oberlin wasn’t the only place students were asking for these spaces. Black students at NYU, UC Berkeley, Scripps and Pomona colleges have made similar requests.
Some students have even taken it upon themselves to create safe spaces informally in areas nearby their campuses. Late last year, when a 19-year old white Mizzou student threatened to “stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see" and students on campus reported hearing gunshots fired shortly thereafter, black students living off campus and nearby alumni opened their homes to provide refuge for black students who were evacuating campus.
“I know that once I became more involved on campus and met more people like me that I could identify with, my academic success began to rise,” said Sesley Lewis, the BSU president at California State University, Los Angeles. “Does that mean we’re promoting segregation [by asking for safe spaces]? Absolutely not. It’s essential to have spaces where we can vent and feel comfortable. If we’re not able to ground each other and hold each other down, that’s another thing that feeds into us not succeeding.”
- Divestment from the prison industrial complex
The students we spoke to argue that black students cannot feel safe or welcome on college campuses as long as universities continue to invest in systems, like police forces and private prisons, which directly profit from the imprisonment and exploitation of black people.
In 2012, California as a state accounted for 12% of revenue at the Corrections Corporation of America, Inc., the nation’s largest private prison company. Late last year, Black Student Unions at all nine UC campuses passed a resolution calling for immediate divestment from prisons, which led to the University of California selling roughly $25 million worth of investments in private prison corporations.
"[The resolution] is definitely a start, but it needs to keep going," said CSULB alumni Dominic McDonald, who is still heavily involved with the CSULB Black Student Union. "If people knew how much money was going into prisons, it would make California less attractive than it is now. It should be common knowledge for people to know where their tax money is going."
The UCI Black Student Union, who was an integral part of the UC resolution, has plans to take it a step further and has already met with Janet Napolitano about their plans to pressure the UC administration to abolish police at all UC campuses.
They said to Fusion in an e-mail: “Universities do not provide a sanctuary for black students… This is a problem across the nation, across the world. Racial violence animates all of the institutions we think are 'normal' or take for granted (i.e. family, school, desire, home, etc.).”
This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.
Symone Jackson is a community organizer in San Jose, California who graduated from Santa Clara University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Her involvement in grassroots organizing and work experience as a public health research assistant has provided her with a unique lens for analyzing community health issues. As a local organizer, she primarily works with families who have lost loved ones to police violence, serving as a consultant, conducting legal research, and performing PR and communications duties. As a fellow, she hopes to further develop her writing skills while shedding light on some important community health issues in the South Bay such as housing insecurity and the impact of police violence on children and families.