Examining the Politics of Race on College Campuses

Public monuments that honor unrepentant racists. Widely shared social media memes that mock African American heritage and culture. Online chats that discuss lynching. Daily, unavoidable micro-aggressions. Neo-Nazi marches on campus. Swastikas scrawled on public spaces. Confederate flags draped across residence halls. Group photos of students wearing sombreros and sporting faux mustaches at a Cinco de Mayo theme party. Online screeds liberally peppered with the “n word.”

These aren’t vestiges of a bygone era or a rare event, says best-selling author and expert on Greek culture Lawrence Ross. They are just some in a long list of recent events on college campuses that coalesce to send a clear message to students of color: You don’t belong here.

The author of The Divine Nine, which examined the history of African American fraternities and sororities, and Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses came to Lehigh as the first in a series of speakers planned by the MLK Committee for the 2018-19 academic year. The talks and other programming events are organized around the theme of Race-X, which will examine
the ways in which race intersects with various issues, including voting rights, the environment, culture, politics and social justice.

Ross has visited hundreds of college campuses to discuss the enduring tradition of racism in a lecture titled “Know Better, Do Better: Campus Racism and You.” The nearly two-hour discussion walked attendees through a deck of slides that detailed the both overt and insidious ways racism endures in educational environments. The irony, he noted, is that education is seen as “the great equalizer,” but in reality often functions to institutionalize privilege.

Are these events, he asked, “all a coincidence, a one-off? Or, is this all about something systemic?”

Consistently, he said, his lectures are followed by students of color who come up to him to confide that they do not feel safe at their schools, or that they were victims of numerous micro-aggressions. These range from direct insults to well-intentioned but insulting questions about their backgrounds or life experiences.

And, just as predictably, he’s found that institutions tend to react in predictable ways.

“First, they individualize the problem,” he said. “They say, ‘It’s just one person.’ Then they minimalize it: ‘We don’t have a problem here.’ Then they trivialize it by blaming it on someone else. They’ll say, ‘Well, they were influenced by language used by a hip hop artist.’ In effect, you are dismissing the concerns of minority students.”

These events, he assured the audience, are not rare. In the last five years alone, Ross has tracked 200 to 300 campus protests in response to fairly recent racist events. “And campus racism,” he said, “has been an epidemic for decades.”

Not surprisingly, he said, college administrators have been slow to recognize and address the issue. In a 2015 survey of more than 700 colleges and universities that was conducted by Inside Higher Ed, close to 90 percent of the administrators rated race relations on their campus as either very good or excellent. After numerous protests or eruptions on campuses the next year, the survey was conducted again to see if the administrators’ perceptions had changed.  The results, he said, were almost identical, indicating that racist incidents are often “dismissed at the highest levels.”

That is why, he said, “administrators are then surprised when people are protesting.”

College administrators are far from the only culprits, Ross said, identifying a list of factors that have institutionalized racism and inequity. They include legacies of racism and anti-immigration laws, campus symbolism, resistance to affirmative action, and long-standing inequities and deficiencies in “separate but unequal, poorly funded K through 12 systems.”

The particular resistance to affirmative action—which has been reversed in some states—stems from a misunderstanding of its purpose, Ross said: “We live in a society which has been purposefully made inequal, so we are opening the door a little wider. Initially, it had a great benefit for students of color. But, like anything, when you take a step forward, you get blowback.”

That blowback has taken the form of frequent demonstrations by College Republicans and other groups, even in states where affirmative action policies were reversed years earlier.

“You’d think that when a Black or Latino student actually gets to a place like Lehigh, that white people would say, ‘Wow, you got here, you must have really worked hard or overcome obstacles.’ But what we are seeing from all these events on campuses—and not just in the South—is that students of color are getting a message from white students that says, basically, ‘I don’t believe you are equal to me. You don’t belong on this campus.’”

Following his discussion, Ross fielded questions from the audience and signed copies of his books outside Packard Auditorium.

He was introduced by MLK Co-Chair Dahlia Hylton, who thanked the co-sponsors of the event, which included the Dialogue Center and the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity.

Photos by Christa Neu

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