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Davis, California

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Racial climate on college campuses


Universities have a role in reducing racism by altering curricula

Executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center Dr. Shaun Harper spoke at UC Davis about his research on Feb. 22. The seminar, titled “How Universities Sustain Racism in America”, was part of the UC Davis Forums on the Public University and the Social Good.

Harper and his team have visited 50 colleges and universities across the United States and collected data from 10,000 interviews with students, staff and faculty to better understand racial climates in institutions of higher education. At each institution, 300-700 interviews were conducted and were compiled along with local news articles and questionnaires to create an image of the racial climate at each site. The findings are then compiled in a report delivered to the institution and include lengthy recommendations each institution can take to improve their racial climate.

Universally, minority students reported feeling isolated, overwhelmed and singled out at colleges and universities. Being the only minority person in their departments, faculty members, such as professors and advisors, reported a feeling of “onlyness”, as well as fatigue in dealing with daily grievances. All but one university out of the 50 surveyed had reports of racial slurs being said to minority students and staff.

Despite the great diversity in America, 87 percent of college presidents are white, and so are 79 percent of full-time university faculty members. Such grave imbalances have inspired Harper since he was a child to push for changes.

“Black people in my town were disproportionately very poor and not in positions of leadership and authority,” Harper said. “It’s not because my people don’t want to be in positions of leadership, or that we want to be poor. I knew it wasn’t that. I also knew that it wasn’t because we don’t work hard or we don’t put forth the effort. My mom cleaned white people’s toilets in their homes, doing backbreaking work. I knew there had to be larger explanations. I’ve been on a quest for this my entire life and career. Not just to better understand them, but to address them and correct them.”

UCD Provost Ralph Hexter, the director and series sponsor of the UCD Forums, said he was only slightly surprised by Harper’s results.

“Yes and no,” Hexter said. “When I say, yes, this was so powerful and cogent an argument. But when I say no, it’s because — though I wouldn’t be able to put it so forcefully, much less with the kind of research and experience behind it — I understand and have for some time understood that, to quote the titles of the first two chapters in [Harper’s] forthcoming book, ‘the university was born racist and still is racist.’”

Harper included in his lecture a clip from CNN where young children looked at images of people of different skin tones while being asked questions about which color corresponded to being “dumb” or “beautiful”. The children, black and white alike, pointed to images of black and brown children as embodying negative attributes and white children as exemplifying positive attributes. Even at five years old, these children were equipped with damaging stereotypes that are often not adequately challenged in a school curriculum. Children do not seem to be born racist, but rather become racist through teaching and learning.

“We need to change the curricula in our schools of education and our schools and be very, very intentional in doing the work to disassemble racism,” Hexter said.

By the time most students graduate from a university setting, they are unlikely to have had any formal curricula regarding race. Dr. Maisha Winn, a professor in the UCD School of Education and the co-director of Transformative Justice in Education, said educational researchers in many age groups can work together to create better curricula regarding race.

“Higher education researchers help us think about what we should be doing in that P-12 age range,” Winn said.

After noticing schools had sometimes done little to change their institutional practices when delivered a racial climate report, Harper now revisits the site with his team to publicly announce the results of the studies. Harper’s work indicates a disconnect from the values of diversity championed by universities and the painful experiences many students and staff still encounter.

“When you seek the truth from oppressed people, marginalized people, people of color on college campuses, they will give it to you,” Harper said. “But you have to be in pursuit of how they experience this place so differently than their white counterparts.”



Written by: George Ugartemendia — science@theaggie.org


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