Recently, as the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) continues to roil with the fallout from the so-called Compton Cookout, thousands of students and faculty participated in statewide protests against a draconian budget that has cut a bloody swath into California’s public universities. UC and California State University student activists across the state are calling for an end to the “privatization” of public higher education. Activists charge that university officials are increasingly siphoning funding for instruction to research and development through byzantine private investment schemes. In addition, there is a growing trend to give preference to out-of-state students who pay higher admission fees. The majority of these students are not from historically underrepresented African American and Latino communities. This strategy essentially constitutes creaming, ultimately reducing spots for working-class students of color who are far more likely to rely on financial aid. While UC Chancellor Mark Yudoff recently boasted of an $800,000 salary and perks to star faculty, “grunt” faculty and staff were laid off or forced to take furlough days, classes were cancelled, program funding was curtailed and a draconian 32 percent tuition hike was proposed. Yudoff’s king’s ransom was garnered on the backs of California students of color who will be denied access to a system that is nationally regarded as the “Rolls Royce” of public higher education.
For those experienced with the business of White supremacist higher education politics, the UCSD administration’s pro forma soul-searching, public denunciations and earnest pledges to discipline the “Cookout” offenders are all tiresomely familiar. In 2005, a Black female student at the private California Institute of the Arts found vulgar anti-Black epithets scrawled in her dorm room and degrading anti-Black graffiti had been written on an artwork in the Institute’s gallery. In response to the incidents, the campus Black Student Union organized protests and meetings with the administration which yielded few commitments to long-term change. The school’s minuscule Black and Latino population was imperiled by scant financial aid, invisibility in the Eurocentric curriculum and the paucity of faculty mentors of color. White faculty fiercely defended their liberal/progressive credentials with showy claims of multicultural “down-ness.” The college president publicly invoked his appreciation for Martin Luther King and deplored the hate crime as an isolated incident. When I was hired in 2006 to teach Cal Arts’ first Women of Color in the U.S. course, the campus was still festering with resentment and racial unrest. Pushing for campus climate change in a group of faculty and student advocates, I presented at endless meetings, in which the administration stonewalled, on redressing institutional bias through professional development training. The perpetrators of the hate crime were given a slap on the wrist, and it was business as usual in the “liberal, inclusive” world of arts education that privileges the canon of the White avant garde.
During an interview on CNN, UCSD Ethnic Studies professor Sara Clark Kaplan outlined the crux of the problem with scapegoating individuals in the midst of a systemic crisis. It’s simply not acceptable to blame the university’s egregious disregard for the needs of students of color on the bigoted acts of ignorant White or “minority” students. UCSD’s gross underrepresentation of Black students reflects the UC system’s institutional neglect of recruitment and outreach to African American high schools. The devastating impact of Proposition 209 (which prohibited California public universities from using affirmative action admissions criteria) has been a convenient smokescreen for maintaining segregation in the UC system. When I taught at UCLA in 2001 at the Graduate School of Education, I had only one African American student in my course on culturally relevant pedagogy. Black students had gone from having a vibrantly visible presence during my stint as a student there during the late 80s and early 90s to barely registering. In some instances, it was more difficult for accomplished African American seniors from highly regarded predominantly Black Los Angeles high schools like King-Drew Medical Magnet to get into UCLA than Ivy League colleges. At slightly more than one percent, UCSD’s Black student enrollment is yet another indictment of the UC’s disgraceful wholesale complicity with the spirit of 209. As part of its demands to administration, UCSD’s Black Student Union has called on the university to step up its recruitment and retention efforts for underrepresented students. They have also pressed for more recruitment of diverse faculty and granting of tenure to faculty of color.
Recruitment, retention, and tenure are important goals. Yet the deeper question of the lack of cultural responsiveness and racism of the faculty and administration is a thornier issue. The ghettoization of ethnic studies and other so-called “minority-oriented” interdisciplinary departments contributes to a segregation of cultural knowledge in which the historical foundations of racial apartheid are obscured. Racism is viewed as a series of misguided individual acts rather than as an integral part of American national identity, power, and authority. At core, the UCSD events are merely another manifestation of the post-racial fallacy that plays out every day in California’s first-world apartheid classrooms.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.
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