Colleges Can Help Resolve Our Racial Crisis

We must work to establish institutional cultures that look, feel and are as much as possible like the just world we profess to value, writes Larry E. Davis.

September 24, 2020
 
 
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Each year, colleges and universities send off more than 1.8 million students with the quintessential graduation message that they are to go out into the world and create a more just and equitable society. But most of our institutions of higher learning from which they graduate look and feel very much like the racially inequitable society we are asking them to change. It seems that we are too often saying to our students, “Do as we say, not as we do.” I firmly agree with former vice president Joe Biden’s comment several years ago at Syracuse University that we need a fundamental change in our culture -- and the quickest way to change culture is to change it on American campuses.

Today’s students are the future architects of America’s culture. They will become our future leaders and bearers of the cultural values to which they have been exposed. We must work to create university cultures that are antiracist and inclusive. That will require that we work to establish college and university cultures that look, feel and are as much as possible like the just world we profess to value. For many students, college will be their first exposure to race and people of color. We must teach them in cultures that reject racial hierarchies and bigotry.

I have been part of university systems for over 50 years: 10 years as a student, 24 years as a faculty member and 17 years as an administrator. During this time, I have had the opportunity to visit numerous academic institutions. It has been my experience that none are exempt from the need to rid themselves of cultural racism. Most institutions do not intentionally promote and support racist cultures (although some do). Rather, they are adhering to long-standing cultural practices.

Virtually all would benefit from increasing the level of racial awareness and inclusiveness on their campuses. So how do they do this? Where should they begin?

As a first step, campuses should be free of statues and monuments that are associated with the enslavement and the oppression of people of color. Campus cultures would be greatly enhanced by having more buildings, lecture halls and streets named after people of color who have made contributions to their institution or to society. That initial effort would do much to give students of color a greater sense of belongingness. It would also be to the benefit of both white and nonwhite students if all departments included course content that addresses the contributions made to those disciplines by people of color.

In light of the very tragic history of white police violence against people of color, and Black men in particular, colleges should also pay serious attention to the hiring and training of campus police. They should make significant effort to have a proportionate number of white and nonwhite campus police officers. Students of color will notice the presence of nonwhite police officers and will be apt to perceive the campus culture to be less threatening

In addition, our students too often witness and partake in a culture where low-skilled workers are afforded little if any respect. To most students, faculty and staff members, these workers are “invisible people.” They have no titles, no names and no status. Often, they suffer the double whammy of being assigned to low-status jobs and being ascribed lower status as people of color. Indeed, the campus culture is often a dismissive one.

Ironically, most of these nonprofessional workers would be classified as essential workers, yet they are among those characteristically shown the least regard. They are unlikely to be referred to by their last names as "Mr." or "Ms." That is especially true for people of color who most often possess the jobs of cleaning and cooking.

As enlightened institutions, we could elevate their statuses and visibility as important and valuable workers. We do not want our students to take such views of a racist and/or classist culture out into the world with them. To begin creating a more respectful culture, we could provide all of our maintenance and culinary staff workers with name tags with a "Mr." or "Ms." on them. While that may appear to most of the professional staff as a rather trivial request, it would provide our nonprofessional workers with some self-validation and a sense of being respected. Of course, colleges and universities might employ other approaches to accomplish this goal, but they should make some effort to increase the visibility and respect of these workers.

Equitable Employment Opportunities

Discrimination in employment has long been a major contributor to America’s racist history. Perhaps most of the problems experienced by people of color are a direct result of their inability to find adequate employment. Despite some reduction in the unemployment rates of Black men, it remains consistently twice that of white men. And we know that Black men without sufficient employment lack the ability to establish and maintain families.

We can make our higher education institutions places that provide the most equitable employment opportunities for people of color in America. It is ironic that while some now call for the elimination of the U.S. Postal Service, many Black people have found it to be, at one time, the most racially equitable employer in America. I propose that our colleges and universities now take on this mantle and lead the country in being the most racially equitable employers in our country. Our colleges and universities have the opportunity to become citadels of economic opportunity for racial minorities. They can aggressively reach out to potential workers of color, as well as serve as engines for job creation in their institutions.

During my five decades on college campuses, I have witnessed what has to have been billions of dollars being spent on university construction projects. It has been my usual response to cringe when I walk by a campus construction work site and notice not a single person with a Black or brown face working there. Rarely have I seen even a few people of color working as craftsmen, painters, skilled technicians or simply laborers on campuses. This scenario takes place despite these institutions frequently residing in communities where a significant portion of the resident population is nonwhite.

I ask myself, what is wrong with this picture? Can I possibly be the only person who notices the absence of people of color on these job sites? What I’ve witnessed is both astounding and demoralizing as it comes some half century after the civil rights movement.

So why aren’t there more people of color working construction or as skilled craftsmen at our colleges and universities? I believe many of our institutions have let themselves off the hook by putting the blame on labor unions and or construction companies. When I ask companies about the scarcity of workers of color on their job sites, they often respond something like, “We would like to hire more craftsmen of color, but the union either can’t or won’t hire them.” Or they say they can’t find workers who are not on drugs or in some way unfit or unqualified to hire. The failure to challenge these dubious racist rationalizations has been a major failing of our country, and certainly of our educational institutions.

“Opportunity hoarding” is a sociological concept that describes what happens when groups of people hoard opportunities and resources for their own group, thereby excluding others. That’s essentially what many institutions of higher education have allowed those in construction to do. But there is also something known as the other Golden Rule: “He or she who has the gold makes the rule.” I never quite understood how colleges and universities that have the “gold” allow those in search of it to so completely dictate the terms of the deal. If, for example, construction companies began to employ only Hispanic workers, we would soon hear cries of racial discrimination -- and things would change.

It is past time that we in higher ed cease to award contracts to companies based solely on the one criterion of price. Rather, as we do with the admission of our students, we should consider a number of criteria. When our institutions build a new stadium or residence hall, we should give some weight to the societal implications of our decisions. If unions and construction companies were denied even a few contracts due to having insufficient racial diversity (and not just “plans” for it), many would soon begin in earnest to seek out more workers of color. It is also possible that they might take greater interest in trainee programs to develop a more diverse applicant pool. Presently, they have little incentive to do things differently.

American labor unions have a long and often violent history of excluding workers of color. Our colleges and universities should take a stand against this legacy of racial discrimination and exclusion. If we as a society are ever to reach anything approaching racial economic justice, institutions of higher learning must be among the first, if not the first, to stop giving tacit approval to what are clearly racist employment practices. Given that our colleges are frequently among the major builders in our cities, they can be a major source of employment for workers of color. Like the post office in early times, workers of color should look to our institutions as a place to find economic justice and fair play. Let our colleges become the champion of racial economic opportunity and justice. There are few places where universities have a more significant opportunity to improve the economic status of people of color.

As I have already noted, many of our colleges and universities are adjacent to, if not surrounded by communities of color. Making a concerted effort to bring in more workers of color would be a tremendous boon to these communities. Relatively few of the secretarial and other support staff at institutions of higher learning are people of color. Too often it is the case that a person of color works in a department in which he or she is the sole nonwhite person working there. It is as if those departments have fulfilled their obligation to diversify. Presently, many minorities and poor people have little contact with and few opportunities to work for the colleges and universities near them. We can change that if we muster the will to make it happen.

Finally, my travels to colleges and universities have frequently afforded me the opportunity for off-the-record conversations with diversity officers. These positions are, more often than not, held by persons of color. They almost always say to me in private that they are asked by their superiors to assist in bringing about changes in the racial diversity of their institutions. But at the same time, these officers say that they are informally cautioned not to advocate changing anything that might challenge the existing status quo. Perhaps this is the reason why many who hold diversity officer positions often expressed to me their feelings of being demoralized and minimally effective. Their dilemmas capture the unfortunate reality taking place at many of our institutions: we verbally express the desire for greater racial equity and inclusion, but behaviorally we are doing little to bring it about.

Change Must Start at the Top

Colleges and universities presently have an enormous opportunity, if not moral obligation, to assist in America’s struggle to make itself a more perfect union. For institutions of higher learning not to engage more fully in what continues to be America’s foremost social problem would be to miss what is truly one of academe’s greatest opportunities to do good in the 21st century. We can assist in moving our country toward greater racial equality in a major way. But we must address the unpleasant fact that our institutions of higher learning have in their own manner contributed to America’s race problem.

While I call upon all students, faculty and staff to be more active in our country’s struggle for racial equality, the initial change must come from the top. It is the presidents and chancellors at the helm of our colleges and universities who must take the first initiatives to provide strategic direction and the support necessary for our institutions to be involved.

Of course, presidents, chancellors and members of boards of trustees could very well get immediate pushback while advocating for greater racial equity and inclusion. But if we are to ever make our colleges and universities resemble more closely the America to which we aspire, we must at some point have the courage to seek change. It is woefully hypocritical to, each year, ask our students to go forth and create more perfect societies when we as their role models have made only modest attempts to create the world for which we advocate.

The unprecedented health, economic, political and racial crises taking place right now present us with an opportunity to remake our society -- to finally unshackle it from its dark past of racial injustice and tyranny. Indeed, we can free America from the poison of racism. That poison has consistently undermined our efforts to be not just a rich and powerful nation, but to also be a fair and just one. These times of crisis offer those of us in higher education the chance to play a major role in America’s fight for racial justice.

None of the actions that I’ve proposed here will be a quick fix, and they will require the will and the courage to undertake them. We have all seen that, while some institutions had the capacity to correct obvious injustices, they simply lacked the will to do so. Hopefully, our current state of racial consciousness will foster a greater will to change.

But it may be that, for real change to occur, courage is the most needed character attribute. Racist practices on our campuses often have powerful, wealthy and well-connected allies that support them. Inequalities continue to exist in our society foremost because it has been desirous of some that they do so. I cannot tell each of us how or when to be courageous -- only that, at this time in our country’s history, we need more people who are willing to exhibit courage. Few of those whom we most admire did not, at some point in their lives, demonstrate immense courage. Some of us may also find that it is difficult to go against our adversaries, but even more difficult to go against our friends. Promoting greater racial equality, and a culture that is consistent with it, will come with some costs, as efforts to better our society always have.

Bio

Larry E. Davis is dean emeritus of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh. He was the founding director of the Center on Race and Social Problems and the founder and chairman of the editorial board of Race and Social Problems. He has written numerous publications, including Why Are They Angry with Us? Essays on Race (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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