Racial discrimination and inequality in universities in the USA


Racial discrimination and inequality in universities and colleges across the USA have been rampant for decades. According to Crenshaw, “Discrimination which is wrongful proceeds from the identification of a specific class or category; either a discriminator intentionally identifies this category, or a process is adopted which somehow disadvantages all members of this category.” (63) Racism is one of the fundamental problems that face the United States of America and the higher education institutions in the country are no exception. Despite the fact that the universities are expected to be different in that they are made up of intelligent people who are well-informed, the racial problems in the U.S are reflected in the universities and colleges. In fact, various universities have buildings and halls that are named after some of the historical advocators of racism including individuals who perpetrated racial violence in different periods in the history of the country. An example is Benjamin Tillman, who was a post-civil war politician and racial demagogue who was involved in the formation of the Clemson University. The university has a building names Tillman hall which the university has considered renaming in a bid to curb racism. The University of North Carolina also has a hall named after William Saunders, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The issue of racism has receded in the last few decades as people continue to advocate against the problem, but it is still a major concern.

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The existence of these building and other memorabilia such as songs and chants that glorify the racial segregation and violent attacks on black Americans is not just offensive but also a reminder of the historical crimes committed against the black people. The racial discrimination in universities in the country is not just a problem of the past as cases of racism are still reported in the universities today despite the fact that this is the 21st century where people are expected to have shaken the issue. According to Lawrence, “In recent years American campuses have seen a resurgence of racial violence and a corresponding rise in the incidence of verbal and symbolic insult and harassment to which blacks and other traditionally subjugated groups are subjected.”(53) The opposition that has faced affirmative action in these institutions shows that the problem of racism still haunts universities to this day.

In 2017, fliers targeting black people and other minorities were found at the University of Maryland. This was not the first time the white supremacy fliers were found in the university. The fliers were asking white students to report any cases of illegal aliens, which in this case refer to the other races. The fliers also gave a website link to a racist website showing the connection between the universities and the racial perpetrators. The police department of the university said that it was reviewing the school footage to establish the people who were involved, but nothing much was achieved in the investigation. This shows that the issue of racism in the university scene is a serious problem that needs to be managed. It is clear that racism is still a problem in the United States even in the centres of higher education.

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Currently, the universities and other institutions of higher learning are meant to provide social, economic, and any other kind of mobility and uplifting without any kind of racial, religious, gender, and class discrimination. However, this was not always the case as universities and colleges provided scholarly works that justified the enslavement of Africans (Chou and Feagin n.p.) In fact, there are many institutions of higher learning in the United States that were financed by money from the slave trade. During the era of slavery, most of the universities had black slaves that were used in maintaining and erecting the buildings and other infrastructure in the schools. These include reputable universities such as Harvard, Brown, Princeton, among others. The scholars of these universities also believed that slavery was right and racial superiority should be maintained. The students and the various departments of the universities argued that slavery was an essential part of the economy and it should be maintained. The course works in some historical and religious subjects justified slavery.

After the civil war, most of the white colleges did not make any significant changes when it came to the admission of non-white students. They limited the entry of non-white students and students from other religions such as Jews and non-protestant Christians. According to Bowen, William, and Bok, about “86% of the black students at the selective colleges studied were from middle or higher socioeconomic backgrounds.” (49) This shows that there was a limitation of the non-whites to join the universities if they hailed from poor family backgrounds. In the southern parts of the country, the universities used legal segregation to bar black students from attending the universities. On the other side, the universities in the north used quota systems to reduce the number of black students who could join the universities (Bowen, William and Bok 5).

Apart from the employment of the methods mentioned above in barring the black students from entering the universities, other religious groups were also prevented from entering the schools. These include Jews, Catholics, and Muslims. This went on for decades up to the late 20th century. To keep up the segregation in these institutions, violence, and threats were applied by the perpetrators of racism. The religious leaders were also not spared in the violence as shown by an example in 1924, when a Catholic priest was kidnapped and castrated by members of the Ku Klux Klan who were also supported by the police chief and the mayor of the town. This happened in Gainsville at the University of Florida. This was because they suspected that the Catholic priest was trying to convert the Protestant students. This shows that discrimination can stem from different factors. According to Crenshaw, “Discrimination like traffic through an intersection may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another…..similarly if a black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.” (60)

Some of the racist individuals who participated in the formation of some of the universities such as Tillman who helped found the Clemson University instilled racist ideologies in the foundations of the universities they help found and some of these are still evident today (Lawrence 79). It is seen that some of the universities that have recently experienced racist incidents have a historical meaning that the founders were the ones who instilled the racist agendas and they continue to haunt these institutions to this day.

It would be expected that the racial problem, especially in the universities, should have ended by now considering the great progress that has been made in the fight against racism. It is true that racism has reduced significantly in the last 50 years when compared with the previous era of the civil war. The American institutions have made great strides in achieving diversity in the racial composition of the students. However, numerous cases of racial discrimination continue to be witnessed across various institutions in the country (Synnott 5).

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In 2015, the chancellor of the University of Missouri was forced to resign after protest emerged concerning his handling of racial discrimination cases in the institution. In the same year, a student body president who is of American-Indian descent was abused racially by a white student at the University of Southern California. Another former student of the University of Mississippi was sentenced to a six months jail-term after he hung a noose around a statue of the first black student of the university. Approximately 146 cases of racial discrimination were recorded in 2015 by the department of education showing that the level of tolerance in the institutions is still not fully accomplished.

Most of these incidents of racial discrimination are made worse by the poor response of the administrations of the affected institutions. In most cases, the institutions’ administrations have failed to take the appropriate measures to deal with the cases and also prevent future occurrences of these situations. According to Brewer, “Many of today’s most articulate spokeswomen, too, participated in the black student, civil rights, and black nationalist movements.” (59). As a result of the lack of action by the administration amid the racial discrimination incidents, the students in these schools have employed campus activism to fight the incidents. The student’s activists are mostly seeking motions of no confidence in the presidents of the institutions due to their inability to deal address the cases appropriately.

There are numerous implications of the racism and inequality experienced in the American universities with both the students and the institutions affected by the discrimination. The U.S Department of Education is creating measures to reduce the vice, but it is clear that the measures created are not sufficient to deal with the issue. A consequence of the racial discrimination in Universities is the progression of the racism practice into the future generations. It is a fact that the university students are the crème of the American society and they will be the leaders of tomorrow (Crenshaw 60). Thus, if the issue of racism in higher education institutions is not resolved, the entire society will continue to be affected by racism as the students who are perpetrators of racism will continue to do so even after they leave the university and continue to serve the society in different capacities. Since the society will be looking up to these individuals in future, the young children will also adopt the racial stereotype as they observe. Hence, the cycle will not end.

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The racism in universities is going to affect the number of minorities who attend higher education institutions as they are likely going to be afraid of being subjected to the discrimination. As a result, the level of education in the minority racial groups will deteriorate as their numbers will reduce in the universities (Feagin et al. n.p.). Even the individuals from the minority racial groups who attend universities cannot be able to perform at their peak level as they will be affected psychologically which has the potential of affecting their academics.

Poor education levels in minority groups affect the development of these communities because the educated people are the ones who are expected to serve the society in future. Hence, the continuation of racism will lead to a situation where the poor communities continue to be poor. The reduction in the levels of the education of the minority groups will also impact the overall education in the country. Another consequence of the racism in universities is a poor reputation for the institutions in which the incidents happen. It is damaging for an institution to be accused of perpetrating or promoting discrimination as it is expected that the institutions should be free of any kind of inequality (Lauren 5). Thus, the institutions that fail to deal with the issue of racism appropriately can lose their credibility.

The problem of racism in the universities can be reduced or even eliminated by admitting more students from the minority racial groups and also hiring a faculty that is more inclusive in terms of the racial composition. By doing this, the universities will create a more diverse environment that will reduce the problem. Research has shown that the universities that have a more diverse and inclusive composition have reported a significantly lower number of racial discrimination incidents.

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Increasing the funds allocated to scholarships, fellowships, and other programs for minority groups in the campuses can also reduce the discrimination incidents. According to Feagin et al. “choice of a college for African Americans involves serious dilemmas and major struggles not generally faced by white Americans.” (46)  The students should also be given input on the hiring of faculty and administration staff to ensure a more diverse environment is created. Mandatory sensitivity training for faculties and students can be applied in the institutions although this measure has a low probability of reducing the problem.

Perhaps the most effective measure that has the potential to reduce the discrimination on campuses across the country is the appropriate implementation of stringent no-tolerance policy. This method can be quite effective because no students would participate in any kind of discrimination if he knows that he might be expelled, or have his financial aid cut off if found guilty of discrimination. This would bar a majority of the students from taking part in the discrimination.

As seen from the text, racial discrimination has existed in American universities from the beginning where the minority race students were not even allowed to attend the universities. According to Lauren, “Thus, long before they ever set foot in any significant way on other continents or established permanent diplomatic contact with other peoples, European possessed an extensive tradition of certain other races of the world” (71) This shows clearly the long history of racial discrimination. There are some characters in the history of America who helped found some universities and colleges, and yet they were major advocators of racism. The situation has improved over the years as seen from the significant increase in the number of non-white students who are enrolled in universities and other higher education institutions. However, racism is still prevalent in American universities as seen from recent incidents of racial discrimination.

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Black Americans are not the only minority group that is experiencing racial discrimination in the higher learning institutions. Asian Americans suffer from racial stereotyping though they are well educated, and most of them are financially stable. According to Chou, “They either fail to live up to their model minority status or are subsequently labelled inferior or they live up to stereotypical expectations and are consequently classified as nerds or geeks.”(70) The inequality is also shown by the poor representation of minority communities in institutions of higher learning. The administrations of the universities have not taken sufficient measures to reduce racial inequality. To counter racial inequality in the institutions, it is advisable to increase the number of students and faculty members from minority races to ensure to provide a diverse environment that is known to reduce racial discrimination in an institution. The universities should also implement a no-tolerance policy for racism, which will bar students from engaging in the backward belief.

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  1. Bowen, William G., and Derek Bok. “The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions.” Princeton University Press, 2016.
  2. Brewer, Rose M. “Theorizing race, class, and gender: The new scholarship of Black feminist intellectuals and Black women’s labor.” Race, gender, and class. Routledge, 2016. 58-64.
  3. Chou, Rosalind S., and Joe R. Feagin. The myth of the model minority: Asian Americans facing racism. Routledge, 2015.
  4. Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics [1989].” Feminist legal theory. Routledge, 2018. 57-80.
  5. Feagin, Joe R., Hernan Vera, and Nikitah Imani. The agony of education: Black students at a White university. Routledge, 2014.
  6. Lauren, Paul Gordon. Power and prejudice: The politics and diplomacy of racial discrimination. Routledge, 2018.
  7. Lawrence, Charles R. “If he hollers let him go: Regulating racist speech on campus.” Words that wound. Routledge, 2018. 53-88.
  8. Synnott, Marcia. The half-opened door: Discrimination and admissions at Harvard, Yale, and      Princeton, 1900-1970. Routledge, 2017.
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