Students of Color and the Struggle for Cultural and Educational Justice

In recent years there has been an increase in efforts the thwart, dismiss and otherwise repress multiculturalism and diversity on campuses across the nation. The attack on multiculturalism goes beyond curriculum to the very presence of students of color on campus. Although most colleges state their commitment to diversity right on the front page of their website, many students of color feel anything but welcomed once they are on the campus. Despite all talk to the contrary, there is an organized element at the university from the stratums of administration to the student body itself that seeks to turn back the clock on racial progress and return this country to the days when most of this nation’s sites of higher education were lily white. They have created organizations, journals and websites dedicated to fundamentally racist ideas of Western hegemony and white academic dominance.

Their attacks run the gamut. They have ranged from challenging the celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, the funding of student of color organizations, to promoting intolerance and bigotry via hostile flyers featuring images of people of color with the caption “They Hate Us.” These actions work to reinforce the racist idea of America as a white nation and the university as whites-only. All of this has occurred alongside the disturbing act of white students mocking and deriding people of color by coloring their faces and costuming themselves as racial stereotypes. These videotaped acts of minstrelsy clearly showcase the increased acceptance of racial hostility and intolerance. What better example of white privilege can there be than white people literally “fleshing out” their racist fantasies via their actual white skin?

These attacks are not new, but are part and parcel of a systemic attack on the lives and aspirations of people of color throughout this country. In that sense, what is happening to students of color on the campus must be placed in the context of what people of color are experiencing generally.

Ever since the acts of 9/11 just about every non-white ethnic or racial group in this nation has experienced being perceived as a threat of some sort. For most of us that hostile gaze has been a fundamental part of our people’s American experience. All the same, the fear of people of color in general and those peoples that do not subscribe either culturally or politically to the mores and values of Europe and the so-called West has increased in lock-step with the national security color-coded index. Whether we are Black or Arab or Asian or Latino/a or Native American, we have all experienced the disturbing looks of anonymous whites at airports or on subways. But this cloud of suspicion is not confined to sites of interstate and intercontinental transport. It has crept into every sphere of American life, most especially the realm of academia.

Therefore students of color must come to appreciate and understand the history of their people’s collective struggle for justice in America. This will enable them to have a clearer appreciation of the fight that was won to gain their admittance onto the campus and what they must do to maintain that right.

Any cursory reading of the history of education in America will show that this country has not joyously embraced the idea of integrated schooling. It is only in the last fifty years that this nation has struggled to accept the idea of education as a right for more than just whites. That history is vital for students of color to understand the circumstances that surround their education today. Otherwise, they leave themselves wide open to the twisted notions and ideas that are often promulgated by the very institutions they attend. What might be in the best interests of the college may not be in the student of color’s best interest. The university will state on the front-page of its website that it “embraces diversity” and is “an equal opportunity institution.” But it will not tell you how former students of color had to wage collective struggle to get the university to begin to come to terms with their presence and needs. It is this history that is as vital to know as any history you will learn in class.

In the last few years, the forgotten story of that struggle is slowing coming to light. Black Studies or Africana Studies, Asian Studies, Latino Studies or the ubiquitous “Ethnic Studies” were not always options of study for college students. Students had to actually fight to see these departments established and funded. It all began with the struggle of students at San Francisco State in the late Sixties. This history is now being chronicled in books such as White Money/Black Power by Noliwe M. Rooks and From Black Power to Black Studies by Fabio Rojas.

What I want to emphasize is the fact that these students were not interested in just establishing academic departments. Initially, the development of Black Studies was just a part of a broader struggle for justice on behalf of Black students and other students of color. The initial list of demands presented to the administration included calls for educational justice, the recruitment and retention of faculty of color, the equal funding of student of color organizations, and the establishment of community education programs. These students were very deliberate in their efforts to keep their struggle connected to the greater struggle that was occurring throughout the country for their people’s rights to citizenship and basic human dignity. They understood their success was tied to what was happening back at home. This is a lesson students of color would be wise to learn even now.

Additionally, included in their demands was the necessity of maintaining control over the establishment of these new programs. Unlike today, where so-called “ethnic studies” departments operate under the auspices of college administration, the initial thrust was for the final authority to rest in the hands of the students in coalition with the community. As the years passed, the university was able to manipulate the students’ demands until ethnic studies programs fell under the full control of administration.

The establishment of multicultural affairs has a history that is not that dissimilar from the establishment of “ethnic studies” departments. These academic departments would not be enough to redress the problems faced by students of color on college campuses. Students continued to see their concerns belittled and undermined by college administrators that saw their campus activism as nothing more than a nuisance. Sometimes, it would be issues off-campus that would spark a student movement. This was the case for myself and many of my fellow students attending Fairleigh Dickinson University in the early Nineties. In the Spring of 1991, Phillip Pannell, Jr., an unarmed 14 year-old Black boy who lived in the neighborhood that surrounded the Teaneck, NJ campus, was shot and killed by a white police officer. This single act of racism sent shock waves through the Black student community and ignited a student movement that would culminate in the establishment of the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. This struggle occurred at the height of the Afrocentric movement when Black students across the country were gaining consciousness of their African heritage and cultural legacy. Armed with a greater appreciation of their people’s contribution to humanity, students of color organized with a new-found sense of themselves and their capacity to make change. During this period, hundreds of multicultural affairs departments would rise up on campuses across the country.

There is a legacy of struggle that students of color would benefit from tapping into and taking up. The ensuing fight for what is being called “campus diversity” is the modern manifestation of the historic fight for justice and dignity for the student of color. This is a struggle for academic democracy, cultural parity and racial justice. As such, ideology and political viewpoints are at play. The knowledge of this history of student of color activism enables current students of color to build on the ideologies of resistance and self-determination that have emerged out of these struggles. What are we struggling for? What are the means we will use to achieve our goals? What mechanism is in place to pass this legacy down to incoming classes? When will we know that we have succeeded? The answers to these questions will help guide our activism.

In the spirit of our aims, students should be ever-vigilant to exhibit the same spirit of justice and democracy these seek from the university itself. The movement must be as democratic and inclusive as our demands to administration. Thus, students must challenge the sexism, homophobia and class bias that has stifled true progress within our respective communities. Furthermore, it means that we must make coalition building across racial and cultural lines a priority. Too often when we think of cross-racial coalition it is always with white students. I am simply encouraging us to reconsider “cross-racial” to include other students of color that fall outside our particular racial group, whatever it might be. Organize around common goals. All of our communities of color have had an experience with white supremacy. Rather than fight about which group has suffered the most, we must challenge ourselves to respect each other’s experiences and commit to working together to end an oppression that is common to us all.

The tactical error of historical amnesia has caused the movement for educational justice to fall behind the times. The tragedy is that students of color are still struggling against some of the same injustices that those first students that broke the color barrier in higher education faced. Yes, tremendous progress has been made. The establishment of ethnic studies programs that highlight the achievements and contributions of our people as well as the creation of multicultural affairs departments, that enable the interests of students of color to be acknowledged and addressed, are serious developments that cannot be underscored enough. But even in this era of progress, the threat of racism still exists in a variety of guises. Student of color organizations and initiatives remain grossly under-funded. The curriculum is still culturally biased. Acts of racial intolerance and bigotry remain commonplace occurrences for students of color. And most importantly, students of color today enter the halls of higher education as a well-funded attack on their very presence is under way. In this historic moment, students of color must be vigilant in their developing consciousness and activism. There is a legacy that students of color can tap into that has the power to, not only strengthen their resolve, but give them guidance in this work of seeking justice and defending the humanity of our peoples.

What students do on the campus can also affect the lived reality of our peoples throughout this nation and even throughout the world. Just as students of color activists in the Sixties were able to recognize the intrinsic relationship between their fight on the campus and their people’s fight throughout the country, students today can organize with a similar consciousness. If they do, they will not only make a significant contribution in the fight against institutional racism and cultural intolerance, they will also have answered the call of destiny. And the work they will have accomplished will serve as the blueprint for generations of student activists to come.

This essay was recently published in the inaugural issue of Brown and Black, a student journal published at Lehigh University.

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