On Martin Luther King Day, a small group representing the University of Michigan’s Black Student Union (BSU) presented the university with seven demands. If the university did not respond to the demands in seven days’ time, the students threatened, they would take “physical action” (which they later clarified would be nonviolent).
The university’s crime? Insensitivity to race, a lack of commitment to “diversity,” and a failure to recruit black students to the order of 10 percent of the student population.
In the decades since the civil-rights movement, universities across the nation have bent over backwards to recruit and aid minority students. Affirmative action — whether exercised explicitly in accounting for race or implicitly in fostering “diversity” — is a factor in admissions for almost every college. And few schools lack African-American and multicultural centers, Latino/a and African-American studies departments, and full-salaried “diversity coordinators.” Some schools even have “cultural diversity” general-education requirements.
For example, the BSU’s seven demands, read publicly by senior Erick Gavin on Martin Luther King Day, include the following: “We demand an opportunity to be educated and to educate about America’s historical treatment and marginalization of colored groups through race and ethnicity requirements throughout all schools and colleges within the university,” and “We demand an increase in black representation on this campus equal to 10 percent.”
High among the students’ grievances is that black enrollment dropped from 6.4 percent of the student body in 2006 to 4.6 percent in 2012 following the passage of Michigan’s Prop 2 banning race-based affirmative action. Because of this drop, the university has, in the eyes of the BSU, failed in its commitment to diversity.
The university was quick to respond, and administrators met with leaders of the BSU on Friday. Though the seven demands were not immediately met, Vice President of Student Life E. Royster Harper described the meeting as a “robust family conversation.” “Some of the next steps are exploring, some are data collecting, and some are things we can do right away,” she said.
The student government is drafting resolutions to expand the race and ethnicity curriculum, and the administration is “reevaluating” the minority-recruitment process and developing a “pipeline for minority students” to reach the University of Michigan. The university will also allocate $300,000 to renovate the Trotter Multicultural Center, as the BSU demanded. After the meeting, the BSU said it is “optimistic” moving forward.
On the same day that the BSU at Michigan was issuing its threat, members of the Afro-American Society at Dartmouth College took to the stage, delaying the school’s Martin Luther King Day keynote address in an effort to end “oppression on campus.”
“Dartmouth is complicit,” said Jalil Bishop, the president of the society. “We are complicit in failing to break down the structure that keeps so many black and brown bodies across the country and around the world marginalized, and keeps so many white bodies benefiting from that marginalization.”
No longer will these minority students try to fit in, Bishop said. He urged the audience to tell an unspecified “them” that “you tried to be acceptable, you tried assimilation, you tried respectability, but your black was too black . . . for them to accept you. . . . [Assimilation] does not work unless you annihilate who you are.”
Unlike their Michigan peers, Dartmouth’s Afro-American Society offered no concrete demands for steps the university could take to end minority “marginalization.”
These protests are the first of the year, but, while apparently unconnected outside of the coincidence of their date, they are not isolated.
In March 2013, the BSU at the University of California–Santa Barbara (UCSB) sought to address the “hostile racial climate throughout the UC system” with demanded “structural changes.”
“We demand an aggressive recruitment of Black faculty,” the Santa Barbara BSU wrote. “There is an inadequate number of Black staff and faculty on campus. This is particularly relevant in the retention of Black students because the overall campus climate is racially hostile to Black students.” It also demanded two black psychologists, on the grounds that “Black students need psychologists who share similar experiences in terms of racial discrimination and in dealing with the racially hostile campus climate at this University.”
The students gave their university three to six months to respond to these demands; in fact, by April, UCSB had drawn up a plan to recruit more black students, announced that it would hire two black psychologists, and allocated funding for a permanent display on the history of student activism. The university did not give in to all the students’ demands, however, refusing to change the name of North Hall to “Malcolm X Hall.”
Just a short drive south, the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) similarly came under fire in the fall for its alleged racism, as Sy Stokes, a junior and an African-American-studies major, decried UCLA’s race relations in a YouTube video that gained almost 300,000 views in one week.
Noting that only 3.3 percent of UCLA students are black, Stokes claimed in his video that “every black student in class feels like Rosa Parks on the bus.” Calling UCLA an “institutionalized racist corporation,” he decried the university’s naming a building after Albert Carnesale, a former chancellor of UCLA, who publicly opposes affirmative action — “the action,” as Stokes put it, “that could make our fraction on your demographic pie chart look more than just a second hand on a clock.”
Only ten days later, 25 students of color in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education staged a sit-in during a class in which, according to the students, minorities have experienced discrimination. For about an hour the students read a letter listing their grievances, claiming that the “barrage of questions by white colleagues and the grammar ‘lessons’ by the professor have contributed to a hostile class climate.” “Grammar choices . . . reflect ideologies,” the students said.
To date, the university has not altered the rules of English grammar to conform to student wishes.
Activism on college campuses is nothing new, but unlike the civil-rights movement of old, which battled segregation and intimidation, these modern activists see racism in grammar corrections, the absence of black psychologists, and the lack of racial admission quotas.
In calling for quotas and race-tailored services, the students are demanding — as the president of the Dartmouth Afro-American Society implied — not to be accepted into society, but to be judged and ministered to by virtue of their color. If the university fails to do so, well, we all know what that’ll be called.
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.