Higher Education Must Work for Racial Justice

June 8, 2020
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Caroline Bañuelos, Ashley Simon, Merith Weisman

Originally written by request and published in Flux Magazine. This list is not exhaustive and there is much more higher education must do to work for racial justice. Further, as our lifelong education and understanding continue to develop and change, this will need revision. Most recent revision: 9/22/20

As our communities continue to come to terms with our deep heritage of racism, colonialism, mass incarceration, police brutality, and racial health disparities, many of us are looking to our higher education institutions for leadership. Of course, these institutions are part of the problem as we teach and model institutionalized racism ourselves. How can we not when we are all successful products of the system? The first step that each of us, especially those of us who are White and who disproportionately benefit from the system, must take is to recognize that anti-racist work is lifelong and more of a process than a goal to be achieved. It is both personal and political, both individual and institutional. Remember that universities are first and foremost a place of learning, so continue the lifelong process of educating yourself and recognize that if you are not ready to lead, the best thing to do is to follow with humility. Silence and shutting down is not the solution. 

Campus Compact, an organization of college and university presidents that supports community-based and civic learning, shared their list of recommendations for how universities should respond and take action. They suggest that university leaders make statements of support, that the physical campus be used as a safe space for community-wide discussions, host town halls to have university-wide tough discussions, provide spaces for marginalized communities, integrate learning about racial injustice into the curriculum, build PreK-16 partnerships that foster collaboration and create a pathway to higher education for marginalized communities, consider the needs of the local community in purchasing and procurement, make space for community voice on campus, build classes with assignments that collaborate with marginalized communities, support community-based research, and establish civic learning outcomes for all students.   

These are all good ideas, and at Sonoma State, we do most of them to some extent. Yet higher education can and must do so much more. Here are some ideas:

  • Don’t commit racist acts. When we do, however unintentionally, stop, name it, apologize, and recommit to lifelong self-educating about anti-racism. Remember that if you are called out, listen and learn from it, and try not to become defensive.

  • Listen to student demands and requests for a more socially just university.

  • The university and individuals should connect with local communities of minoritized populations. Listen to what they say. Follow their lead. Value their knowledge and experiences. Support their initiatives and events. Show up. Especially if you’re White, it’s important to also respect when Black people and other people of color need their own space, as this is part of following.

  • The university should take a stand on local issues, especially those that relate to social justice, even if that means taking a side that might alienate powerful people, organizations, or donors; our values should lead us.

  • Divest from corporate partnerships that perpetuate racial inequality, such as prisons and surveillance technology.

  • When members of campus communities engage in protests and activism, students, staff, faculty, and community members should be protected against retaliation and revenge from law enforcement, campus administration, campus auxiliaries, and other such bodies.

  • If your campus has seen declining enrollments among Black students and/or Native and Indigenous students and/or other underrepresented students, consider providing free tuition for all students from those communities.

  • Consider implementing targeted outreach for student populations who are impacted by the criminal justice system.

  • Provide free and publicly available training and education on how and why to engage in activism, including how to protest safely and effectively, and free and publicly available training and education on how to address racial justice and social justice issues.

  • Reconsider the role and authority of campus police departments and capacity to facilitate public safety and defunding as many police services can be done by other professionals, such as free, accessible, and appropriate professional mental health services. For Black folks and other people of color, disabled and LGBTQIA people, and other groups historically brutalized by law enforcement, calling police officers is counter to safety. Divestment leading to abolition is essential to rectifying anti-Blackness, colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy.

  • Our goal should be an inclusive learning experience and curriculum. We must evaluate and re-consider the curriculum and co-curriculum carefully and deeply. What and who and how we teach, regardless of discipline, must be assessed through a social justice lens. Context matters. We should directly address our perpetuation of white supremacy in and outside the classroom. The Inclusive Teaching Practices Toolkit from the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) is a good starting point.

  • On a more macro level, learn about and then teach how societal systems create and perpetuate inequality. These systems also create and nurture belief systems that support and rationalize inequality. Even when we modify the systems, the beliefs continue. For example, during slavery and Jim Crow eras, there was a well-developed literature “proving” that Black people were inherently inferior. These systems are nominally gone, but their related beliefs are still covertly powerful today. Universities, like the entire educational industry, perpetuate these assumptions unless we challenge them: the default is perpetuation.     

  • Explore the difference between “political correctness,” performative anti-racism, and basic humanity. The former are defensive and ingenuine, as well as transparent. The latter is retraining ourselves about how we view ourselves and others.  

  • Compensate the intellectual labor of people of color, whether these are the guest speakers invited to provide perspective, the community partners who are co-teaching, or the assigned reading or video, the people of color who are providing these learning opportunities should not be the only people doing the work pro bono. Address existing pay inequities.   

  • Ensure that Black faculty are available to serve as reviewers for Black faculty candidates for hiring, retention, extended contracts, tenure, and promotion. The scholarship/creative activity of Black faculty must be extolled on campus given the history of neglect and even derogation of their scholarship, perspectives, and creative works, particularly when those works point to and condemn white supremacy. This has resulted in the accumulation of disadvantage throughout the careers of Black faculty. 

  • Look at every decision through a social justice lens. Diversity is an asset, so use an assets-based approach to hiring students and employees, the awarding of scholarships, and the allocation of resources. For example, since the consequences of chronic racism include a faculty and staff that are not representative of our community and neither look like the student population we have or aspire to have, most faculty of color are overburdened by addressing the special needs of students of color. This is often even more the case for faculty of color who are women. Being a faculty, staff member, or student of color is an asset to the entire University, as evidenced by the high demand for faculty of color described above. This disproportionate service can most easily be addressed by changes in hiring that recognize the assets these faculty and staff of color bring.

  • Don’t fall into the whataboutism trap. Absolutely do consider the oppression and power of women, LGBTQIA folks, people with disabilities, religious and ethnic minorities, older people, and others, especially through the lens of intersectionality.

  • Do the work of vetting information for accuracy and spread reliable and relevant information. Study and teach critical thinking and its opposite: acceptance of simplistic and misleading actions.

  • Try to adopt the view that prejudice and bias are universal, but can be minimized only when we decide we don’t like that part of ourselves, and wish to grow away from it. De-politicize prejudice as a human phenomenon. Talk about it. Try to create an environment in which we teach each other about how to manage it, especially how to prevent acting on it.

  • In particular, there are some things White people alone must do:

    • It is so important that those of us who are White practice our listening skills. It is very common that when people of color are in White spaces that they are completely unheard. Universities like Sonoma State have a lot of White spaces, both physical and virtual. 

    • It is also important that White people call each other out on mistakes. This is not the responsibility of people of color, and creates a further undue burden on folks who are already suffering the daily consequences of white supremacy and racism. 

    • Aggressively learn about microaggressions, the often non-blatant verbal and non-verbal messages that we convey. Learn what language is offensive and practice empathy, the skill of projecting ourselves into the real-life circumstances of people different from ourselves. Part of this process is building understanding of privilege, and how to respond to it non-defensively.

    • Understand that it is not the responsibility of people of color to undo White racism. 

    • Remember that privilege can be almost invisible and simultaneously obscuring. There is no value in feeling guilty about that privilege. Instead, name it out loud and do what you can to use it for the common good. 

    • Remember that diversity is an asset and all of our work is better when we work on diverse teams. Refuse to serve on all White committees, groups, and panels. At the same time, don’t resort to tokenism as it isn’t effective and puts further burdens on people of color. Instead, do the work of helping the team to become more inclusive.  

    • Recognize that none of us is immune to unconscious bias. It is unavoidable in our society. But what we can do is make concerted consistent efforts to check ourselves. For example, sometimes White folks forget that when people of color are in authority positions, racism doesn’t disappear. Try to catch yourself if you find yourself not providing the respect a leader of color deserves.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive and there is much more higher education must do to work for racial justice. Further, as our lifelong education and understanding continue to develop and change, this will need revision. Our appreciation to Campus Compact and CFA for providing us with leadership and guidance.