Racism and Higher Education
Educators, research scientists, and college administrators have all called for a new commitment to diversity in the sciences, but most universities struggle to truly support black students in these fields. In Making Black Scientists: A Call to Action, Marybeth Gasman and Thai-Hay Nguyen explore ten innovative schools that have increased the number of black students studying science and improved those students’ performance. The book reveals the secrets to these institutions’ striking successes and shows how other colleges and universities can follow their lead. The result is a bold new agenda for institutions that want to better serve African American students.
In recent years, more Black students at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) are rising up and pushing back against campus climates that are not designed for them and sometimes work to squash their voices, rights, and dreams. Yes, most Black students attend PWIs, and yes, many PWIs are integrated, and yet practices that weed out Black students persist. Most four-year PWIs have small numbers of Black students — percentages below the percentage of Blacks in the u.S. population. Few four-year PWIs have a student body that is at least 13 percent Black, yet historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are accused of being segregated institutions in the twenty-first century despite having student bodies that are 13 percent White, 2 percent Latino, and 2 percent Asian American. How many PWIs have interrogated their programs and policies that often hold back Black students and other racial and ethnic minorities? Very few, and many are under pressure to maintain their current campus cultures by resistant faculty, influential alumni, and wealthy donors. How many PWIs have experienced or implicitly allowed racial violence against Black students in recent years? While countless racial issues were rearing their ugly heads across the nation and the Black Lives Matter movement was trying to ensure that people were “woke” around the large-scale violence, oppression, and racism against Blacks, in 2014 the online news site Inside Higher Education asked presidents and provosts across the nation if racism was an issue on their campuses. Ninety percent reported that “race relations were excellent or good.” Campus leaders are not acknowledging the forces threatening Black students’ belongingness and ability to take advantage of opportunities to learn and thrive on campus. Black students’ success is hindered as they continue to witness and experience racial violence — frequent murders of Black people; the highly disproportionate incarceration of Black men, a system considered the “new racial caste” or the election of Donald Trump, seen as giving permission to physically and verbally assault racial and religious minorities — on their college campuses. unbeknownst to many, college is not a time where students are wholly detached from reality and personal obligation, free to pursue their passions without challenge. This is a dangerous myth. Black students and other underrepresented racial and ethnic groups are often afraid for their lives, knowing that the structural and symbolic violence against their communities can also exist in their classrooms, in residence halls, and in interactions with faculty members and other students.
Many PWIs fail Black students in major ways. Their curricula are White-centered — promoting the perspectives and histories of White scholars across the foundation of general education, relegating non-White perspectives and historic discoveries to supplemental readings or not including them at all, and neither acknowledging nor discussing race and racism. The physical and biological sciences are often portrayed as race-neutral, when, in fact, histories demonstrate how “science” was used to justify slavery and promote theories of racial inferiority. If you are White, this approach can be empowering, because this White-centric form of curriculum is generally what you are accustomed to and what has nurtured and affirmed you throughout most of your education. However, if you are Black, you often feel ostracized, pushed to the margins as if your voice does not matter. According to Black students who experience it daily, the lack of racially diverse curricula has a profound negative impact on their perception of their belongingness, and ultimately on their ability to learn and persist.30 One of the reasons the curriculum at most PWIs is White-centered and delivered in ways that can alienate Black students and other racial and ethnic minorities is that 76 percent of the faculty at PWIs are White. We see the country’s demographics shifting — with more Latino, Asian American, and Black students making their way to campuses — but we see very little increase in faculty diversity. The lack of movement is largely the fault of one group — our current faculty members. At most colleges and universities, the faculty members are responsible for recruiting new faculty members, and generally they recruit candidates with backgrounds similar to their own in terms of education, mentors, and teaching styles, which has resulted in a largely White faculty even as the pipelines to the professoriate have become more diverse. During the recruiting process, faculty often hold Black job candidates (and other racial and ethnic minorities) to higher standards, questioning where they earned their undergraduate degrees, the quality of their PhD programs (even highly selective programs), and the stature of their mentors. Even faculty members who on the surface appear committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion put up roadblocks to hiring underrepresented racial and ethnic candidates by bringing up issues of quality — concerns that are rarely raised for White candidates. If mentored by the “right” people and holding a degree from the “right” institution, White candidates are given the benefit of the doubt on issues — teaching, research, or publications — related to their qualifications. White faculty members’ regular responses of doubt to minority candidates reflect not only their biases, but an educational system that allows such behavior to occur. Some researchers suggest that implicit biases are at the core of this kind of racism, whereas others claim that it is intentional and central to Whites’ upholding systems that maintain their status while oppressing others.
Faculty members who know that there is systemic racism in faculty,hiring processes and even whisper their support to Black colleagues, yet remain silent in public so as not to risk their own privileges in the college and university setting, can often be the most concerning. Maintaining the status quo among faculty members does not help anyone, especially not students. Doing so openly reinforces the systemic racism on which our colleges and universities were built, hindering the efforts for greater inclusion on our campuses.
As PWIs see more campus unrest and growing numbers of Black students feeling ignored, our nation’s HBCUs have started to see increases in enrollment. Black families, now a generation or two away from attending HBCUs, are deciding to give them another look due to what Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard university, coins the “Missouri effect.” In late 2015, after years of student unrest at the university of Missouri, much of it resulting from several hate crimes against Black students, student group #ConcernedStudent1950 protested against the racially oppressive campus climate and demanded changes to the university, including a more racially inclusive curriculum, increased recruitment of Black faculty members and staff, and the resignation of the university system’s president. Joined by other student groups, #ConcernedStudent1950 created a national movement that took many colleges and universities by storm. In protesting a higher education system that offered conflicting promises of an improved racial climate, students revealed the many ways they felt hurt, unacknowledged, and unwelcome. realizing that their children are more likely to learn in environments free from a culture steeped in Whiteness and in which they are embraced and championed, more Black parents are encouraging their children to apply to HBCUs, with many ultimately choosing to attend. Parents and students also realize that HBCUs offer other important elements for learning, such as an environment expressly built for Blacks, including both a diverse curriculum and faculty — 56.3 percent Black and 43.7 percent other racial and ethnic minorities and Whites — that can relate to and speak on the issues African Americans face in the united States.