I Went to UC Berkeley and Apparently Saw More Black People Than Anybody Ever Has There

Illustration for article titled I Went to UC Berkeley and Apparently Saw More Black People Than Anybody Ever Has There
Photo: Panama Jackson’s iPhone

I recently got back from attending a race and policy symposium sponsored by the Students of Color in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. I had the distinct pleasure of being the keynote speaker for their conference, titled, “Reclaiming Our Time: The Importance of Identity in Policymaking.”


I was excited to attend for a couple reasons: 1) While I’ve been to Northern California and Oakland in particular several times, I’ve never been to the campus of Berkeley, and considering its status among U.S. colleges and universities, I wanted to see the school; 2) I’ve never had the opportunity to keynote a conference before.

While I’ve been on more panels than you can shake a stick at and have been part of lots of Q&A-type forums, especially about VSB, this was my first opportunity to build a discussion from the ground up. I like to think that I did a good job, and I really enjoyed the opportunity. Shouts to the school for bringing me out and Veronica Cummings for being such an awesome host and liaison. ’Twas truly a joyful, joyful experience.

Now, I’ve had the opportunity to visit several top-tier, elite institutions over the years. Usually the events are sponsored by student groups of color, so while I will see lots of minorities at these events, the campuses themselves look fairly white, or at least nonblack. UC Berkeley has a sizable Asian population (according to its website’s fall enrollment statistics, about 33 percent of the entire student body is Asian), but the black/African-American population is about 3 percent, or just under 1,400 students. On a campus of 41,000 students, that looks and feels paltry.

I knew this going in and was also informed ahead of time that it would feel entirely devoid of blackness roughly everywhere I’d go on campus. So imagine my surprise when I got there and I saw black folks everywhere. Literally, the moment I checked into my hotel room, located directly across the street from the law school, I saw a crew of black folks walking down the street—then some more, different people for sure. I met up with my host for the weekend and we went to get lunch, and I told her I’d seen lots of black folks already (compared with expectations), which threw me off.

As soon as we left lunch and headed to the class she was teaching, which I had the pleasure of guest lecturing (though it turned into guest “keeping it all the way real”), we walked by the campus’s main hub, and all I heard blaring was some Trey Songz, and it seemed like all of the black students were hanging out with full PA system in tow, sharing the best of Sirius XM’s The Heat with Berkeley’s campus.

I was, of course, lost. Because here I was, going to what I’d been preparing for as a place with very little in the way of blackness, and all I saw and heard was blackness everywhere. In fact, the whole time I visited, I kept seeing black folks here, there and everywhere. In fact, I must have seen them all because I didn’t feel like I was on a campus devoid of blackness at all.


I told my host, Veronica, that I must have seen literally all of the black folks on campus, in different parts, doing different things, etc. At one point she started to refer to me as “Black Gravity” because she was confused at how many black folks seemed to be coming out of the woodwork. That happened when I’d mention to others how many black folks I saw. There were stunned looks, like, “Where?” Apparently, seeing black folks all over isn’t a thing.

Now, I know the percentages, so I’m not pretending that the campus is awash with melanated individuals throwing up fists for black power because all they want is their freedom. What I am saying is that I went to one of those places where I presumed that I’d feel extra black by virtue of the lack of existence of many black folks, and somebody must have sent a memo in advance of my assumption because it was blacks on blacks on blacks for two straight days. Which I appreciated. It made my experience at UC Berkeley feel full. Of color.


So while I know that UC Berkeley is a pretty nonblack institution (probably on par with most universities of its like), I was ever so happy to see so many black folks that I stopped feeling it necessary to speak to every one. Or hit them with the head nod. At some point, I minded my own business and kept it pushing.

It wasn’t quite A Different World—more Grown-ish—but black enough for me.

To all the black folks at UC Berkeley, I see(nt) you. Now, if you could just come out more often for the folks who actually go to school with you ...

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.



I went to Berkeley for grad school and taught there and yeah ... It’s like, I knew we weren’t in full force, but people came out for each other and community was felt. Somehow?

But you wanna talk about some non-POC people quick to subtly and not so subtly bug out when a black person is, in their estimation, “out of place?” Ooo lawd Berkeley and North Oakland. Maybe that’s part of it.