Commentary: College Racism and the Lessons Some Students Refuse to Learn

Keith Boykin

Commentary: College Racism and the Lessons Some Students Refuse to Learn

Keith Boykin recounts recent racial incidents on campuses across the nation.

Published March 20, 2015

Back when I was in college at Dartmouth, a group of conservative white students with sledgehammers attacked a student-occupied shantytown that had been built on the main campus yard to protest racial apartheid in South Africa.

The late night shanty attack, hours after the college's Martin Luther King Day celebration, was an outrageous assault on racial equality, but we knew it was not the first, nor would it be the last, racial incident on our college campus or any other.

When the University of Oklahoma earlier this month expelled fraternity students for participating in a racist chant, commentators rushed to condemn the students who were caught on video using the N-word. But this was not the first racial incident on that campus either.

Maurice Franklin, who in 1978 became the first Black student to join a white fraternity (Lambda Chi) at the University of Oklahoma, recently told me of his 1970s experience hearing the N-word from students in houses on fraternity row. Some fraternities at the school have a long "racist history," Franklin said. Decades later, the problem persists and Franklin laments a "woeful lack of diversity on campus right now."

Franklin's younger cousin, who also lives in Oklahoma, posted on Facebook just this week about a recent campus incident in which he was racially profiled, had his car impounded and was questioned about his religion.

All this comes in the same week in which 20-year-old University of Virginia student Martese Johnson was brutally beaten during an arrest. "I go to UVA," Johnson screamed repeatedly to police officers as they pressed his bloodied face on the concrete.

It didn't matter where Martese Johnson went to college. Black college students are no safer from racial prejudice, profiling and violence in the ivory towers of the academy than they are in the rest of society.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education keeps an ongoing list of campus racial incidents that is frequently updated. Just this month, students at Wheaton College in Illinois dressed up in Ku Klux Klan uniforms and carried Confederate flags. Meanwhile, a sorority at the University of Alabama was forced to expel a student for using a racial slur on the Internet.

Last month, students at historically Black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania woke up to find the N-word spray-painted on a sign at the entrance to the campus, and before that, sorority sisters at the University of Maryland created a birthday cake with the N-word written on it.

The Journal has documented incidents from all across the country. College students yelled "white power" and scrawled "Kill these n*****s!" on dorm room doors in supposedly liberal Massachusetts. Another group of students barricaded a Black classmate in his dorm room and placed a bicycle lock around his neck in progressive California. And hackers broke into a computer that controlled a projector at a campus student center to project racist Nazi propaganda on the walls of a university building in my hometown of St. Louis.

When the 2014 film Dear White People depicted a Black-themed Halloween party featuring white college students dressed as thugged-out rappers and blackfaced-stereotypes, some probably thought it was an exaggeration. But African-American college students have seen these racist costume parties over and over again.

They are part of the many daily indignities experienced by Black college students in our supposedly colorblind world. And while some white conservatives argue we shouldn't focus so much on race, what they really mean is that Black people shouldn't focus so much on white racism and should instead direct our outrage to what they perceive to be comparable alleged incidents of Black racism toward whites.

Unfortunately, in the decades since I was a Black college student on a white campus, the level of racial discourse has barely evolved. The same tired questions are still being asked by clueless white students demanding that aggrieved Black students justify their rage.

Why do you need to have a Black Student Union? Why are "Black power" chants acceptable but "white power" is considered racist? Why do Black students sit together at the cafeteria?

I heard these same loaded questions in the 1980s and I'm sure my parents heard them in the 1960s. It's as if they don't teach history to white students in college anymore.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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