In Lawrence Ross’ new book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, he highlights America’s little mythology problem.
“For the past 400 years, African Americans tried to assist white Americans in recording a memory of racism, often to no avail,” Ross writes. “White America clings stubbornly to a collective narrative, what Gore Vidal famously called ‘the United States of Amnesia.’ That amnesia acts like a cloak of ignorance, warm and embracing enough to make the issue of racism a mental no-go zone for those who refuse to acknowledge its existence.”
Meaning it’s easy for many white people to simply wrap themselves up in the flag, close their eyes and think of amber waves of grain when anyone dares to mention that systemic racism might be more than theoretical; that it might be a real thing that impedes many from their pursuits and keeps our society inequitable.
Hearing that the United States does not, in fact, distribute equally its “liberty and justice for all” doesn’t mix with the melting-pot metaphors that white Americans have told themselves.
And since our colleges and universities exist in America, it’s only natural that they retain the same traits, the same desire to pretend that they are an oasis or a utopia, and untouched by the outside world.
But they’re wrong, Ross told The Root. They can, and will, be touched.
“Universities are completely unprepared,” Ross said.
Ross’ book Blackballed tackles that unpreparedness. It examines what colleges and universities are often not ready for: reality. The reality that across the nation, multitudes of African-American, Latino and Asian-American students feel marginalized on their campuses. Ross says that they may be a Bruin, Sooner or Trojan, but they don’t feel as if they’re part of those legendary collegiate families, and many schools are doing little to rectify it. Ross says this is because most schools don’t even realize that they have a problem. They’re too wrapped up in mythology.
“There’s a reason why there are nice pretty pictures of diverse people, diverse students on college splash pages for their websites,” Ross said. “It’s designed to create this illusion that when you come here … basically you’re coming to a safe environment.”
Ross said that school administrators and even some students see their campuses as a utopia, a sort of “educational Disneyland” where outside issues can’t touch them, causing thornier topics like race or sexual assault to be swept under the rug.
“For four or five years, you’re wrapped up in this notion that ‘I’m not really part of society; I’m a member of this university.’ But when outside society encroaches upon that, you don’t have any real special privileges. You’re just as vulnerable as on the outside,” said Ross.
This illusion of safety was never more obvious than in 2014 when Inside Higher Education did a survey of college and university presidents on campus racism. Perception and reality were not only not on the same page; they weren’t even in the same book.
“Ninety percent [of college presidents] said they were ‘good or excellent’ when it came to racism,” Ross said.
These same presidents, who put a smiley-face sticker on themselves as they graded their campus’ race relations on the highest curve ever, would face an unprecedented year of protests in 2015—from the controversy over members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity singing that a “n–ger” could “hang from a tree” before they could join the frat at the University of Oklahoma, to the University of Missouri football team threatening to boycott playing in support of a black student’s hunger strike, as well as other protests over campus racism.
“Obviously, they didn’t know what the hell was going on on their college campuses,” said Ross. “Which is insane.”