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A racial reckoning on campuses is overdue

The protests at Missouri won't be the last.

Members of the Concerned Student 1950 movement speak at Missouri on Monday.
Members of the Concerned Student 1950 movement speak at Missouri on Monday.
(Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The most striking thing about the racist incidents that forced the University of Missouri's president and chancellor from office isn't how unbelievable they are, but how banal. They could happen on any campus anywhere. They probably are. And now colleges are on notice: A timid response is unacceptable.

The protests at Missouri will not be the last.

The resignations of Missouri president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin might quell the immediate crisis in Columbia, as the leaders hoped. But this isn't just about one university's tough semester. Over the past year, Americans have paid more attention to the role racism continues to play in everyday life, from the lingering symbols of the Confederacy to disparities in the criminal justice system.

Now that scrutiny has come around to universities. And while college leaders like to think of their institutions as progressive places, colleges, like other venerable American institutions, have both a past and a present laced with racism. For the first time since the late 1960s, students are forcing them to grapple seriously with it.

Historical racism at universities is getting more scrutiny

Black students during Cornell sit-in
Black students at Cornell University occupy the administration building in 1969.
Underwood Archive via Getty Images

When black students took over administration buildings and held sit-ins at colleges in the late 1960s, they left change behind them: black studies majors, promises of increased student and faculty diversity, new financial aid programs.

Today's protestors are picking up those half-finished fights and demanding universities return to that era's unfulfilled promises. Administrators, the students argue, don't understand and aren't helping with the challenges and everyday slights that students of color face on campuses that were often originally built to keep them out.

Some of the wounds the students want addressed are old ones. After the Charleston shootings, the persistence of monuments and memorials to the Confederacy and defenders of slavery on college campuses drew public attention. The nation's most prestigious universities were built with slave trade money and in some cases slave labor — a history that many universities, including those in the Ivy League, weren't willing to explore until the 21st century.

The University of Texas moved its statue of Jefferson Davis. Bowdoin College, in Maine, got rid of its Jefferson Davis Award. Yale University is still trying to decide whether it should rename Calhoun College, named after the virulent defender of slavery and Southern secession.

The symbols of the past might not matter quite so much if they didn't echo in the present. The same weekend that the football team rose up at the University of Missouri, Yale was in the throes of a full-fledged crisis after a faculty member told students that discussion and debate were the best ways to handle offensive Halloween costumes.

The argument started within Silliman College, named for a faculty member whose family paid for his Yale education by selling two of their slaves. Silliman later became an opponent of slavery. But he also opposed establishing a black college in New Haven and advocated for shipping freed black people out of the US because there was no place for them in American society

Black students and faculty are still underrepresented

Some observers drew a contrast between the outcry at Yale and the protests at Missouri: Mizzou was outraged about racism, while Yale was incensed by what students saw as the wrong kind of anti-racism. But they have more similarities than differences.

Students on both campuses were upset about how administrators reacted to racist incidents — slurs flung at students at Missouri; black women reportedly turned away from a fraternity party at Yale. Both incidents took place on campuses where black students are underrepresented compared with their share of the population at large, and where black faculty are even rarer.

Outside of community colleges and nonselective state universities, black students are generally underrepresented in higher education. This is partly because before students apply for college, let alone for the PhD programs that used to lead to faculty jobs, years of racial discrimination — including housing segregation that isolate more black children in poorer neighborhoods and inferior schools — pile up.

At the most selective universities, the enrollment gap between white students and students of color has grown since the 1980s, according to a report from Stanford University. At state flagships like the University of Missouri, black students are underrepresented when compared with the demographics of the state as a whole. Missouri is 11 percent black; its flagship university is just 8 percent black.

Black faculty members are even rarer. Nationally, 4 percent of full professors are black. While the ranks of junior faculty are a few percentage points more diverse, black professors are underrepresented at every level. At Missouri, just 3 percent of the faculty is black.

If colleges continued hiring black faculty at their current rate, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education estimated in 2007, it would take 150 years for universities' professoriate to reflect the diversity of American society.

Black college students who do make it to selective colleges are increasingly aware that the societal promises of higher education, for them, go unfulfilled. A yawning racial wealth gap means the burden of student loan debt falls heavier on black students' shoulders. Black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed. White high school dropouts are wealthier than black college graduates.

Millennial college students are still racist

Given those statistics, it's not surprising that students of color, outnumbered on their campuses, feel isolated and unsupported.

Today's college students are typically seen as less prejudiced than earlier generations. They certainly like to think of themselves that way. But there's little evidence that is actually true. The General Social Survey found Americans under 30 are just as likely to believe negative stereotypes about black people as baby boomers were. One-quarter of college freshman in 2014 agreed that "racial discrimination is no longer a major problem in America."

And yet anecdotes of racism on college campuses abound. As the Christian Science Monitor noted earlier this year, the media discovered a "new racism" on college campuses in the 1980s — making the new racism almost temporally indistinguishable from the old racism, except that it was taking place at colleges that were de jure integrated.

The past year saw the fraternity chant at the University of Oklahoma, a noose hanging from a tree at Duke University, and viciously racist anonymous social media posts at Southern Methodist University explaining why white sororities don't want black members. Browsing campuses' pages on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak in the aftermath of the Missouri protest makes clear that while overt displays of anti-black hatred are uncommon, many students discount the notion that race could still play a huge role in their black classmates' lives and opportunities.

Students, too, have been speaking out about their isolation and alienation. At the University of California Los Angeles, students made a video highlighting that the freshman class contained only 48 black men. The play and photo project "I, Too, Am Harvard" documented the alienation that black students on campus faced. Students at some of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges documented on Tumblr the "microaggressions" — everyday slights, some based on race — they face. There's a Twitter account devoted to the experiences of students of color at predominantly white institutions, or PWIs.

If college presidents are surprised by the outcry of the past few days, it's because they haven't been listening.

Colleges in particular struggle with addressing racism because their leaders — mostly older, liberal white men — think they're already progressive places. Those presidents don't deny the force of racism in society as a whole and even on college campuses. But they prefer to believe their own colleges are a special exception.

In a revealing poll earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed and Gallup asked college presidents about race relations. When talking about college campuses in general, 56 percent described race relations as "fair" or "poor." But when it came to their own campus, 81 percent said race relations were "good" or "excellent."

The protests at Missouri were foreseeable — and maybe inevitable

University of Missouri President Resigns As Protests Grow over Racism
Jonathan Butler and other student protestors in Columbia on Monday.
(Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

The ripples from the Ferguson protests and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement have shaken up presidential campaigns far from Missouri. But when it spread to higher education, it started with a campus close to home: Columbia, where the university is located, is only a two-hour drive from Ferguson.

Some of the student protestors at Missouri, including Jonathan Butler, the graduate student who went on a hunger strike, got their start in activism there: "I had never seen that many black people and I had never seen that many black people mobilized in that way," Butler told the Washington Post on Monday.

Nationally, the past year has seen a heightened awareness of racial tension and racial injustice in society and a movement that is ready to confront it. Missouri had all the elements of a perfect storm: a long history of troubled race relations, activists radicalized by a seminal protest movement, football players who joined in at a time when college athletes are increasingly speaking out about how their universities have wronged them.

At the same time, social media is making it easier for campus movements to become national movements. Students of color (or athletes, or victims of sexual assault) might feel isolated on campus at Missouri, or Yale. But social media can easily make it clear that they aren't alone — that students elsewhere feel the same way they do and that those students are taking action and making change. Once those protests are underway, both traditional media and social media are ready to amplify it, newly aware of a tremendous appetite for stories about racial justice and identity.

In the past two years, a handful of young and determined activists on sexual assault created a national push for change by connecting students who felt isolated by their pain on their own campuses, but learned their experiences with assault actually made them part of a community — one that was geographically diffuse but determined to shake up the status quo.

The protests against racial injustice could easily spread in a similar way, influencing and amplifying one another. College football players around the country are surely now aware of the power of a potential walkout. And students at Ithaca College, who were already criticizing their president's response to racial bias on campus, are now asking him to step down, referencing the resignations at the University of Missouri.

This should all be a wake-up call for college presidents, who often seemed caught flat-footed as sexual assault became a national issue. They can't stamp out, or even punish, every incident of racist behavior. But it's clear that in the future when students protest, they're going to need to have a much better answer.