In the aftermath of the controversy and student dissent at the University of Missouri, there has been new found attention focused on protests by black students at college campuses around the country. From Missouri to Yale to Ithaca to Brown to Dartmouth to Harvard to Princeton and beyond, there spirit of righteous opposition has renewed with “change” as its goal. The question is – what does change look like in the 21st century?
Less than one hundred years ago, every one of the named schools had only a handful of lonely black pioneers in the role of students. The idea that there might be tens of thousands of qualified black men and women was so foreign to the considered view of most white Americans, that arguing in favor of black admissions was akin to arguing against the law of gravity or any other conventional wisdom of the era.
Over the next half century, the major battle was in the area of admissions. And that was certainly a battle, replete with the United States Army, the National Guard, FBI agents and an elected American governor of a state standing in the doorway of an American university in defiance of a federal order requiring immediate integration of that institution.
The sixties saw the first major influx of black Americans into the so-called mainstream higher education institutions. And as the demography of American campuses changed, so did the politics – the Black Power Movement, the Anti-War Movement and the Feminist Movement started as currents in intellectual inlets and became tidal waves of change from coast to coast.
Insofar as black students were concerned, the institutional change that was sought was straightforward and a game changer – more black students, more black faculty (many times the first), more black administrators (many times the first) and curriculum changes that addressed the needs, concerns and interests of black students – including African American studies and urban studies.
That these changes took place is obvious through even a cursory view of American academia today. What today’s black students must and should know is that these changes took place in the face of steadfast resistance from white administrators, faculty and students. This resistance was marked by institutional intransigence as well as violence that was enacted by law enforcement and white students as actors. What should never be forgotten is that these changes, which created a new normal on American campuses, occurred only through the recognition of the need for institutional change, and was not merely incidental and reactive change.
That is a very important lesson for today, because some of the protest and turmoil that is seen today is incidental and reactive. The shouted epithet, the anonymously placed noose, blackface parodies at fraternity and sorority houses – these are all offensive and reflective of the racist virus that still courses through the American bloodstream. These practices and actions should be protested but the prize has to be institutional change – otherwise these bigoted practices and Klan-inspired actions will continue in perpetuity.
That is why it is encouraging to see black and white students and academicians begin to examine the historical and financial origins of higher education in America. These examinations are supported and eloquently and usefully presented by MIT Professor Craig Steven Wilder in “Ebony and Ivy” which explicitly details how slavery helped American institutions of higher learning grow and prosper.
It is why inquiries at Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Alabama, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown and countless other institutions must result in their leadership re-examining their origins and coming to a fair and humane conclusion that at the minimum must include acknowledgement and confession to being complicit in the barbarous, bloodsoaked and tearstained aspects of American history.
If today’s students want to know what change looks like today, they need to look to the origins of these colleges and universities and seek a collective commitment to making a difference. Change will not be a simple name change or annual apology. Change will look like a new and different commitment to empowering a different, inclusive and progressive society.
Anything less will be unworthy of the memory of those whose pain and suffering served as the brick and mortar of American academia.