The Absolution of Racism on College Campuses
December 23, 2015
By Leigh Patel
“There are – there are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to, to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less – a slower-track school where they do well.
“One of – one of the briefs pointed out that – that most of the – most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re – that they’re being pushed ahead in – in classes that are too, too fast for them.”
Justice Antonin Scalia’s words during the Supreme Court’s revising of the Fisher v. University of Texas case of affirmative action have been rattling around the insides of many who work and study on college campuses. His words caused outrage, but in fact, they are representative of the widespread and erroneous belief that campuses are apolitical locations of merit and ability. His words are racist because they absolve and therefore further the bedrock of institutionalized racism on college campuses. And these words are echoed in the limited ways that higher education currently has responded to students’ accounts of racism.
A week does not go by in my professional life without students, whom I’ve often never met before, recanting tales of racial hazing delivered through the institution. Female students of color often speak of sexual harassment from white male professors. Male students of color speak of being advised directly after being admitted that doctoral programs are not for everyone. Students of color are asked to navigate inappropriate requests from white benefactors for them to be part of photo ops and research projects that hold no overlap with their interests but that benefit from the anti-racist image their presence optically projects. Students speak of comments from their white peers, comments that demean them, are overly curious about how they spend their time off-campus, and do so from the mantle of colorblind objectivity and omniscience. There are almost always tears of embarrassment, rage, and anger in these meetings.
And of course, this is in no way unique to my campus. On campuses across the country, students of color, gender nonconforming students, and students from working class backgrounds are speaking up more frequently and loudly about the ways that institutions that profess to value diversity are also inept, intentionally or not, to address, limit, and expunge the academic hazing that marginalized students further experience in their academic and social experiences. Their protests and they themselves have been called oversensitive, fragile, and uncivil.
The true incivility is that we fail to apprehend as a nation, still, that higher education is sourced from the same histories and legacies of whiteness as property and individualism that protect property holdings for some at the expense of others. This failure is vocalized through different, yet connected, reactions from higher education administration whose contradictory roles involve both protecting the university’s material interests of status and attending to students’ well-being. These interests are not contradictory because excellence is at odds with racial diversity, but because upending racism cannot be achieved through passive projects of inclusion. Part of the challenge, then, is to better ascertain when reactions to claims of racism tap into the very logics that absolve and further institutionalize oppression. Below I present three commonplace reactions to students who come forward about institutionalized racist hazing and how they each separately, yet cumulatively, further racial harm.
“Hearing both sides of the story”
This common refrain operates on the logic that all speech is equal. Not inconsequentially, one of the flashpoints of current campus protests and disciplining of those protests is that speech must always be civil and equally regarded. This is at once fantasy and fantastical. Some speech is simply freer than other speech. Speech acts occur within contexts and are attached to material experiences and access to resources. This means that uttering appraisals of incompetence taps into different histories, and perpetuates different consequences, for racially majoritized and racially minoritized peoples. Denying admittance to a white middle class female applicant, such as Fisher, activates networks of academic support and legacies of government-sponsored generational presence on college campuses. Denying admission to a Black applicant activates and propels forward the histories of campuses being built by Black labor but inaccessible for Black humanization and growth, as sites of research on behalf of anti-black racism, and, increasingly, complicit in for-profit property accumulation goals. Civil speech can be expected, but to do so out of an appeal of an equal interaction ground is irresponsible and reckless in view of the profoundly uncivil conditions on college campuses. In many ways, the words from students demanding equity are some of the most civil and civic-minded words uttered on campuses.
We are unnecessarily prevented from apprehending the impact on well-being and life chances when we idle in the parking lot of having dialogue to hear “both sides of the story.” In each instance when a student steps forward to report being academically hazed, there will be the story of the student’s experiences, the story of a professor or administrator, the story of an institution that likely just wants all of these other stories to go away, and the stories of all the people who don’t come forward after being institutionally hazed. When the binary logic of 'both sides of the story' frames investigating experiences of racial discrimination on campus, all of these stories are collapsed into a veritable he said/she said logic. This, then, obscures tremendous courage and an almost blind faith required to come forward if one has the slimmest grasp of all-too-common victim blaming that rolls out in he said/she said accounts.
Case By Case Logic
Women can’t add, he once said, jokingly.
When I asked him what he meant, he said, for them, one and one and one and one don’t make four.
What do they make? I said, expecting five or three.
Just one and one and one and one, he said.
—from Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale
Max. S. Gordon deftly employs this excerpt from Atwood's dystopia in his essay on race, Bill Cosby and sexual violence to illuminate the question of how many times an always already unbelievable population must speak to be heard by an always already believed power. The answer? Countless. The point is that some cases of wrongdoing don't accumulate, no matter how many there are. They don't add up because the zero sum has already been tallied.
The always already believable position of power is what enables and even compels the highest court in the land to hear, for a second time (one plus one still equals one here), arguments in a case of aggrieved harm from a plaintiff whose mediocre performance in high school did not minimally qualify her for admission to the institution of higher education. That Fisher's claim of being denied her due rights and advantages could make its way to the Supreme Court is deep testimony to the codification of property rights and who can claim them. Under the jurisprudence lens for the Supreme Court is her claim of being denied. More fundamentally, the case is about affirmative action, recast under racial multiculturalism, not as an amends to the existing system of intertwined advantages for whites, but as way to diversify campuses for better learning. How can institutionalized oppression be addressed when the terms of redress are already so collapsed and distanced from its roots?
The same phenomenon of blurring occurs when individual cases, and hence individuality, reigns over systemic patterns and consequences to material well-being. This point has been made by critical race scholars who have examined how the codification of individual claim to property swings in the direction of the nation’s history of creating and protecting whiteness as property. The point here is not that investigation into each instance of harm is harmful, but rather that investigation that only operates in single units works to blur systemic patterns.
In order to adequately address the treatment of students of color, specifically Black students, on historically white college campuses, the default of the single case approach must be disabused from its aggregate pattern in which students who claim harm are themselves put through the ringer to discount their claim and the institution remains innocent.
Allowing good intentions to underwrite malfeasance
When the dual-sided stories of single cases are explored, the trope of good intentions is sure to rear its head. I both assume and disregard good intentions. I disregard them not because they are unimportant or even potentially engaged as a consideration for altering practices, but because they are too often used for the purpose of absolving racist acts and suspending shifts in material inequities. It is difficult to be a cognizant, intelligent professional educator for long without, at some point, asking why we seem to have endless patience for the harm done to students of color by well-intentioned teachers, researchers, and philanthropists. The history of Black and Native people being objects for experimentation is as long as this nation, even longer. And yet, here one plus one plus one plus one plus one also adds up to just one. One instance of unfortunate actions. As a student asked me upon her reading of the long history of research being a tool of oppression, “but do you think this still happens?” The real question is why would one assume it doesn’t. The default to ahistoricity and well-intentioned innocence underwrites all manner of harm by erasing it like the shake of an etch-a-sketch.
I assume that anyone who is in the current hot seat of higher ed admin at historically white institutions to feel the crossroads of fundamentally contradictory positions: wanting campuses to be places of growth for all who work and study there, and protecting the university’s interests, which has never worked to ensure well-being unilaterally. Never. In fact, the current unrest on college campuses can be seen as indications of initiated projects of diversity and simultaneously halted projects of transformation. To move from dreams of benign inclusion to more substantive reformation, higher education faculty and administrators must engage in more profound actions. We must find ways to redress material inequity without overprioritizing yet more feel-good dialogue or soliciting campus climate reports that are then shelved.
This kind of busyness without transformative effect is what we know how to do. In a sense, higher education comes honestly by its defaults to individualism and materially unimpactful dialogue. It’s part of the sanctioned curriculum. We have cultural muscle memory for these ultimately exonerating tactics. We have much weaker muscles for redressing material, longstanding histories and architecture of colleges as sites of erasure of Indigeneity, anti-Black racism, and whiteness as property.
So what might it look like to develop these muscles?
I imagine a response, not a reaction, but an informed response that knows how to recognize, even anticipate, racialized and gendered hazing on campus. Such a response would meet the reality that, outside of HBCUs, we actually have never attempted to materially interrupt and reconstitute higher education and its unfailing history of benefitting white populations at the expense of populations of color. Responses should not merely rely on new hires to deliver institutions of higher education from their racist histories but also seek to redress the malignant logics carried out through its curriculum and culture. We should demand racial literacy, historical knowledge of racial realism and higher education, a grasp of the reptilian shapeshifting instincts of racism, and an informed refusal to merely rely on the beneficence of people who hold material advantages to give that up. That is to say, I hope for responses that see the response itself as an ongoing labor of reckoning with centuries of violent theft and harm.
You know, as a start.
About the Author
Leigh Patel, associate professor of education at Boston College, is the award-winning author of Decolonizing Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability and Youth Held at the Border: Immigration, Education, and the Politics of Inclusion. She is an interdisciplinary researcher who has written widely on the topics of coloniality, intersectionality and institutionalized racism for academic outlets and venues such as The Feminist Wire and racialicious.com. Prior to working in the academy, Patel was a journalist, high school teacher, and state-level policymaker. Follow her on Twitter at @lipatel.