Why Race Matters on College Campuses Today

by Zehra Abbas

In the past year we have heard of countless racial incidents, student protests and senior administrators and professors leaving their posts across college campuses. One only needs to glance at the comments sections of articles about race to get an idea of how divided we truly are when it comes to this issue. Many whites don’t understand the minority experiences and when minorities express strong emotions they are labeled as being “too sensitive”.  We as minorities are not empowered in college to speak out and still struggle to find our voices. Yet college itself is a great opportunity to explore these issues and learn to articulate feelings that many minorities have been carrying since their school days.

According to the Pew Research Center, minorities will supposedly account for roughly fifty percent of the population by 2050, which means there will be no clear majority anymore. So are we where we should be, in terms of integration, or are we dangerously unprepared for what lies ahead? It is a hard question we need to ask of ourselves when we complain and fear of what it is to come. How our inaction and silence has made us complicit in social injustices that occur day after day. Collectively, as minorities we haven’t been very successful in supporting each other and in doing so we have provided a breeding ground for people to spew their hateful rhetoric with no fear of any consequences.

Millennials have grown up in a world where they can conceivably go to any college they desire. They can get any job they qualify for and utilize any public space or service without regards to their race, ethnicity or religion. They are coming of age during the presidency of an African American in the White House. So where have we gone wrong? In the past five decades while we may have achieved desegregation, as a society we are far from being truly integrated.

According to Education and Economy, 2015, America has fallen behind in the international standings for education. By 2020, it is predicted that the US will have fallen further behind in the global talent pool. While in 2013, the US was the world leading economy, it is predicted by 2016 China will take over and by 2060 India will surpass the US. There is a direct correlation of an increase in literacy rates with higher levels of labor productivity and GDP per capita. Therefore, there is not only a need to increase the number of students who go to college but to make sure these students graduate.

While nations such as India, China, Japan and Finland are moving ahead in building their educational systems and educating their students, at all levels, America lags behind. America is unique from these other countries in that its’ population is not homogeneous but represents a vast variety of students, cultures, religions and backgrounds that make teaching a challenge. Teachers in the US are not representative of student’s racial demographics and this leads to a multitude of problems.

In 2014, a campus climate study in UCLA, showed that a considerably higher percentage of minority students, reported feelings of marginalization and discomfort on campus compared to their white classmates. A UCLA professor explains this, as a result of minority students facing, racial micro and macro aggressions, from faculty, students and law enforcement. These acts of covert racism usually go unnoticed by those in the majority group and might even be coming from well-intentioned individuals. This lack of awareness leads to further ignorance and ultimately resentment and fear since neither groups want to talk or even acknowledge the issues.

There is also a great divide in the perceptions of senior administration and minorities in diversity and inclusion surveys on campus. In a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed in 2014, it was found that almost 90% of college and university presidents seemed unaware of any racial tension present on their campuses. It seems that when the enrollment numbers of minority students go up, it is assumed we are doing well in that respect. Whether campus presidents choose to look the other way or are truly unaware of the problem; this seems to be an issue itself.  The irony being that, people don’t even realize there is a problem.

This problem goes much deeper than being merely a college campus issue. Unfortunately today, decades after Brown vs Board of Education, schools remain woefully segregated due to socioeconomic and demographic patterns. Many students are growing up in an atmosphere lacking a realistic representation of the society they are expected to work, function and be civically engaged in. Even when parents might not hold racist ideas themselves, children are now absorbing a barrage of information through social media, popular culture and other information outlets. When students have not had close friends, teachers or other meaningful interactions with racial or ethnic minorities it is much harder for them to understand those lived experiences. It is also much easier for them to attach commonly held stereotypes and negative images to certain groups when they don’t know otherwise. It doesn’t help when politicians and the ratings-hungry media utilize various tactics to play on people’s ignorance to create unfounded fears in order to further their own agendas.

While we continue increasing diversity offices, events and cultural clubs to accommodate the growing number of minorities on campuses we do not directly address the problems of polarization and the lack of social contact. Most students today, study and go to class side by side with their minority peers but these groups are akin to parallel roads that never intersect.

Colleges and universities need to take a proactive role of providing opportunities for meaningful connections and supporting their students through the process. By providing an environment conducive to peaceful discussions where students can speak out without fear. Bring a more global and multicultural experience within our classrooms, dorms and student centers. We need culturally competent educators and administrators who can provide support to students in a culturally sensitive manner and be prepared to help them deal with the cognitive dissonance that follows. Instructors need to be comfortable in having those difficult conversation regardless of what race they are. We also need to empower minority students to speak up and challenge others in and outside the classrooms. Trying to educate our students in isolation of each other, is denying them, one of the greatest resources we have, to prepare them for the modern world.

Zehra Abbas is a graduate student at Central Connecticut State University in Student Development in Higher Education. Her research interests are identity development among minority students in higher education and the intersections of race, religion, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation. She has lived around the world spanning four continents, seven countries and traveled to many more. She is currently a graduate intern at Yale‘s Office of International Students and Scholars.

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