The Ignored History of Racism in California: College Edition

Communities across the country from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore, Maryland, have been experiencing major uprisings from citizens who perceive their local leaders to be apathetic to racial injustices affecting their communities. College campuses, communities in their own right, have not been immune--often finding themselves embroiled in controversy surrounding blatantly racist acts perpetrated by members of their own campus communities. The tendency for campus leaders, as well as the perpetrators, to minimize and trivialize issues of race on college campuses is what author Lawrence Ross tackles in his new book, Blackballed: The Black & White Politics of Race on America's Campuses.

Whether it is members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing fraternal chants claiming that there will "never be a nigger in SAE" or whether it is members of Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity at the University of Texas dressing as border patrol officers and "Mexican" construction workers at their "Run for the Border" party, Ross reminds us that highly visible examples of campus racism in the 21st century are not difficult to come by.

From a distance, many Californians will watch the media coverage surrounding these events and feel a sense of comfort that those things at those terrible places don't happen here in our state at our universities.

Sadly, those Californians would be sorely mistaken. The reality is that California and its universities, which many view as havens for diversity and inclusion, have been and continue to be hostile places for people of color. People often think that because California doesn't have the same history with slavery as the South does, racism is something that happens over there on that side of the country. But "California has a rich history of discrimination, " Ross says, and that is evidenced by Ku Klux Klan rallies, the mass deportation of Latinos, restrictive clauses in housing, segregated beaches, Japanese internment camp assembly centers, racially segregated schools, and so much more.

The Campaign for College Opportunity released a series of reports last year around the state of students of color in California's public higher education systems, and one theme emerged: it's not good. The gates to most University of California (UC) campuses were locked shut for Black and Latino students, where two out of every three Black and Latino applicants were denied admission. Despite these statistics, and the mounting evidence that being forced to use only race-neutral factors (such as socioeconomic status, high school class ranking, and standardized test scores) in admissions harms campus racial diversity efforts, many politicians and voters continue to dismiss the idea that systemic racism creates barriers to higher education for people of color in California. For example, Ross suggests that through public policy like Proposition 209--which bans the use of affirmative action in California's universities--Californians have actually codified racial inequities.

In essence, Ross says that Proposition 209 forbids people from addressing the fact that the game is rigged: white kids are playing on one side of the basketball court with a 10-foot basket while kids of color are on the other side of the same court playing with a 20-foot basket, and people have somehow been manipulated into believing that leveling the playing field by acknowledging these inequities is providing unfair and unearned advantages to kids of color.

But it's not enough to simply improve access. Let's say students of color do get in. The proverbial fight is not over once they are admitted to a California public university. Truly, their journey has only begun, and what often awaits them during their college career is bad enough for them to wish they hadn't gone in the first place.

In his book, Ross reflects on a conversation he had with long-time friends from his college days at UC Berkeley back in the 1980s who, thirty years later, sent their children to the institution they affectionately refer to as Cal. Their children--both of whom are African American--recall being excluded from study groups at Cal, being surrounded by empty seats in class because no one wanted to sit next to them, and having white students yell racial slurs at them and physically intimidate them and their friends. And a recent report released by the University of California tells us they are not alone: African American students feel the least respected among all racial and ethnic groups on Berkeley's campus.

A quick reminder, too: This was not the 1950s in Little Rock, Arkansas, when these students experienced this ... it was the 2000s in Berkeley, California.

Ross presents a number of other examples in Blackballed of overt racism on California campuses, which stretch as far back as the 1960s to as recently as the 2010s. He points out that in only the last six years we have seen a number of California campuses grapple with racism, including the following incidents documented in his book:

  • University of California, San Diego students hosted a "Compton Cookout" during Black History Month which encouraged attendees to dress up as "ghetto chicks" and gangsters and included stereotypical images on their flyers of African Americans eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.
  • An African American student at the University of California, Irvine was left a note in her backpack while in the library on campus that read, "Go back 2 Africa, slave."
  • An African American student at San Jose State University was clamped in a bike lock and taunted by his white roommates in various ways, such as calling him "Fraction" or "Three-fifths," hanging a Confederate flag, writing the word "Nigger" on a white board in the common area of their campus suite, and much more. (Update: These students were just found innocent of committing any hate crimes related to these incidents.)
To be clear, this handful of documented examples in a 200-plus-page book surely only scratches the surface of portraying the ubiquitous nature of racism dealt with by students of color in their daily lives. Still, these examples underscore the importance of promoting diverse and inclusive campus climates, which
to be important for 1) reducing incidents of bias and discrimination, 2) reducing feelings of exclusion among underrepresented students, and 3) preparing students to engage in a diverse democracy.

It is impossible for campus leaders and others to ensure healthy campus climates and work in anti-racist ways when they don't believe racism is a problem, though (see difference between being non-racist and anti-racist here). And the fact is that white Americans, who make up the majority of college administrators and faculty, are far less likely than members of other racial and ethnic groups to believe that discrimination exists today. This phenomenon is evident from a recent survey of college presidents which found that 90 percent of them believed that race relations on their campuses were generally good, despite the feelings of many students and staff of color that suggests otherwise.

That is why it is important to acknowledge that racism in California was and still is a problem. Continuing to ignore California's history of racism, and then minimizing and trivializing racism when it does rear its ugly head on California's college campuses by suggesting they are simply isolated incidents, will only solidify racism's improper and unwelcomed place in our higher education system.

C. Rob Shorette II, Ph.D. is the Senior Research & Policy Analyst for The Campaign for College Opportunity in Los Angeles, California. You can follow him on Twitter at @C_RobShorette.