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.”
Ross went on to explain that these college presidents who “thought everything was all fine and dandy” were blindsided by the ongoing conflict between the status quo—systemic racism—and African-American students demanding not just a seat at the table but full inclusion on campus.
“Black students are like, ‘We're not compromising on this. We’re not compromising on this in order to make you feel comfortable or to create a calm on campus. We’re going to keep protesting,’” said Ross, adding, “as which they should.”
But should black students avoid the fight at predominantly white institutions altogether and try historically black colleges instead?
It’s up to the students to decide where they want to attend school, says Ross, but the idea that black students who choose to attend predominantly white schools should expect the racism they experience is “defeatist” thinking.
“[It] falls into the notion that white supremacy and systemic racism is something that’s immovable,” said Ross. He doesn’t see the issue as “an either-or.”
“I’m always reminded of the quote—and I’m paraphrasing Malcolm X—‘They don't hang you because you go to a PWI. They don’t hang you because you go to an HBCU. They hang you because you’re black.’ So there is no basic subset of racism that allows one to escape,” Ross said. “The whole idea is that any black student should be able choose whichever type of institution they want to go to. They don’t deserve systemic racism due to the fact that they go to a predominately white institution. They’re not owned by white people—it’s just predominately white.”
So what should students, faculty and administrators be doing in order to ensure that their campuses are more inclusive?
Ross said schools need to stop individualizing, minimizing and miniaturizing campus racism. Just because every four or five years new students come in doesn’t mean the slate is wiped clean. The systemic issues that cause racist incidents to happen are always there.
And while it’s “great to have diversity,” said Ross, schools “need to have inclusion at the same time.” That means creating spaces on campus for students of color and making them feel that they are “an essential part” of the university family. On many predominantly white campuses, the black student population may be as low as 3 or 4 percent, with black faculty even less, rendering students of color “statistically insignificant” and making them “feel like an addendum to the university.”
Schools also must confront racist issues on their campuses head-on. Ross said that “Greek rows have turned into some of the most hostile places for black students at universities,” adding that schools “can’t just be passive about incidents and playing whack-a-mole” with racism. Schools have to be firm, like University of Oklahoma President David Boren, who Ross writes about in Blackballed. Boren severed all ties between the university and its local Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter after the racist chant incident. The only thing that could have made this response even better in Ross’ eyes would be if the university president had given the closed SAE house to a black Greek letter organization or turned it into an Ujamaa House.
Doing this, Ross said, would make would-be racists think twice.
“People would say, ‘Oh wow, we don’t want to lose our house and have them transform it into La Raza,’” he said.