The recent racial profiling of Yale University student Tahj Blow by campus police this past weekend has re-ignited debates and renewed considerable attention to targeting of minority students on predominantly White campuses. He is the son of New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow. Yale University police officers briefly detained the young Mr. Blow, held him at gunpoint and forced him to lie face down on the ground. He was targeted by police due to the fact that he supposedly matched the description of a robbery suspect. After realizing that they had detained a third year college chemistry major and not the actual suspect they were pursuing, police released the young man. Mr. Blow has made his intense level of anger and resentment (what parent wouldn't be?) of the situation known in his recent column.
If you are a non-White male, the odds are that you are much more likely to be the victim of some sort of racial or sexual harassment or racial profiling on a college or university campus. These are the findings from a recent article published earlier this month based on the findings of Harvard University's project. The report is the result of more than 200 student survey responses from several institutions--Missouri State University; two anonymous public institutions in the South and Midwest; and a private elite university in the Northeast.
Reporter Jake New in a recent Inside Higher Ed article provides a number of statistics and examples displaying the multitude forms of intense hostility and mistreatment that students of color frequently endure. Examples of such disrespectful behavior are:
*One South Asian American woman was asked by another student if she was carrying a bomb in her backpack.
* A Black American senior at an elite, private institution remarked that students, particularly White women, often express surprise that he is a student there or act as if they are afraid of him.
* A Native American student at the same institution said that, during a powwow organized by Native American students on campus, a man was shocked to learn that Native Americans attended the institution.
*A Hispanic student commented on the fact that, while he was hanging posters in his dormitory, a White student mistook him for a custodian.
*A female Hispanic described feeling overwhelmed with emotion when faced with racist and sexist incidents.
* Women students reported not feeling welcomed in the classroom and reported faculty and classmates making demeaning comments about their intelligence.
Many women also were disturbed at the fact that professors were much more likely to call on male students during class discussions, that there were far too few female professors, and complained of feeling unsafe on campus, providing specific examples of harassment, sexual assault and rape. There were other disturbing examples.
As someone who has been a faculty member for almost two decades, it would be disingenuous for me to say that I was surprised by such incidents. On the contrary, I have no apprehension believing that any of the incidents occurred. In fact, I would bet dollars to doughnuts such inelegant and awkward encounters did indeed occur. Moreover, these were just the ones that were recited to researchers and reporters.
Over the past several decades the number of non-White and female students attending predominantly White institutions of higher learning has steadily increased. Prior to the 1960s, many women and minority students (particularly Black students) were more inclined to enroll in predominantly Black or all-female institutions. For both groups the reasons varied. Legal discrimination. A sense of community that such institutions provided. A safe environment free of racism and sexism. Identity politics.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was the catalyst that began to tear away at such restrictive policies and made it possible for women and people of color to pursue options that were previously off limits to them. Ironically, today, as we move further into the 21st century, a number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and women's colleges are facing dwindling enrollments, financial struggles, mounting criticism from detractors and various levels of uncertainty.
While such expanded opportunities of the 1960 and '70s were welcomed, such options did not translate into legislating and transforming the hearts and minds of others. Racial and gender conflict has become an ongoing issue at many of these campuses. The 1980s were a time of rabid racism on college campuses. In fact during the mid to late 1980s, numerous racial incidents (many of them physical and violent in nature) occurred on hundreds of campuses throughout the nation. By the early 1990s, such incidents appeared to have waned considerably.
Over the past several years, it appears that the tensions that were rampant in the 1980s have resurfaced. Although this time, unlike then, the hostility seems to be more covert as opposed to direct and overt. It appears that such behavior is more passive-aggressive in nature--what social scientists refer to as micro aggressions. While these sorts of insults and disrespectful attitudes are not blatant in nature, they still are just as problematic in that they are subtle, yet lethal. It is the sort of behavior that eats at one's soul. It is like deaths by a thousand cuts. It often causes the recipient of such mistreatment ample amounts of stress and psychological trauma. Some victims even resort to engaging in abnegation to justify their situation. A Stockholm Syndrome of sorts. It can be a harrowing predicament to be in. For some students of color, higher education is increasingly becoming a culturally horrifying experience.
It is due to such factors that all institutions of higher learning pay close attention to the concerns of students of color and women, aggressively listening to their concerns as well as making a valiant effort to produce a college campus that is receptive, stress free as possible and attentive to all students regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, economic background or other related factors.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D is the co-author of Beginning A Career in Academia:A Guide For Graduate Students of Color (Routledge 2014)