Will universities listen to students about how to end systemic racism?

The University of Mississippi will soon relocate a Confederate monument from its campus. Woodrow Wilson’s name is gone from Princeton University’s school of public policy. In the face of student and alumni protest, administrators at dozens of other universities are reconsidering mascots, statues and building names that have strong connections to white supremacy.

It is fitting that these protests are unfolding a half-century after hundreds of campus protests against racial inequality, the Vietnam War and corporate greed rocked the nation. Then, as now, campus activism was part of a broader social movement that brought Americans to the streets.

Yet the fact that activists have had to fight this hard, during a pandemic no less, to force changes at colleges and universities reveals how little has changed in 50 years. While it is tempting to read this history as one where higher education has bent to the whims of student protesters, the real story is one of powerful resistance. Universities have shown a deft ability to make reforms that still preserve inequality and exploitation in the face of well-organized student movements.

Consider one of the most successful protests of 1970: the Black Action Movement (BAM) strike at the University of Michigan. On March 18, black student activists called for a class strike that shut down much of the University of Michigan’s academic operations. They gained so much support from students and faculty that 50 percent of classes were canceled at the university’s largest college in the following days. By April 1, administrators conceded to many of the students’ demands, including a goal to increase black enrollment to 10 percent of the student body.

The concession unleashed the wrath of critics, including Vice President Spiro Agnew, who claimed that weak administrators allowed a small group of activists to control university policy. But activists never gained control of anything. Although UM came close to fulfilling the BAM concession of 10 percent black enrollment once in the 1990s, black representation has generally hovered between 4 and 7 percent since 1970. Black enrollment currently stands at just under 5 percent in a state where black 18- to 24-year-olds make up 17 percent of the population.

The numbers are just part of the story. The explanations that administrators crafted to justify the persistence of racial disparities have done great harm to black students’ access. In 1980, when a reporter pressed one UM official about the university’s failure to meet BAM’s demands, he replied, “We owe it to the faculty not to admit dumb kids.”

Even worse, UM officials manipulated evidence about black student performance. Administrators’ favorite explanation for not admitting more black students was that high attrition rates showed that there weren’t enough academically capable black students to admit. But these statements contradicted the university’s own evidence produced after the BAM strike.

Internal studies showed that most black students who left before graduation were in good academic standing and left because of other factors, such as a hostile racial climate. That evidence was never released to the public, making it easier for administrators to make claims about “dumb kids.” UM leaders made similar unfounded statements about the capabilities of prospective black faculty.

As UM officials spread racist claims to justify racial disparities, BAM activists, like their peers around the country, fought to use the resources of the university to empower black communities outside campus walls. For example, BAM wanted the university to incorporate black community members in planning programs, such as Black Studies, to ensure the university served the needs of local black residents.

The concept of diversity that universities embraced by the 1980s turned that fight on its head. In recruiting materials, black students and local black communities were quickly turned into resources to empower and enrich universities, serving as marketing tools to attract white students who wanted the educational experience of contact with black folks. Administrators, in other words, understood that African Americans’ presence – even in small numbers – raised the monetary value of the university. The value extracted from black students and communities has never been returned.

Another enduring legacy of the resistance to BAM, the rising presence of university police, has contributed to the university’s poor racial climate. Immediately after the BAM strike, UM administrators hired two police officers, who, for the first time, were stationed on campus. By 1991, UM employed 25 officers. That number more than doubled a decade later.

Over the past 50 years, black students at UM have reported frequent police stops in which officers have presumed that the students don’t attend the university. Black students have long reported that police and security officers put African Americans in the position of constantly proving they belong on campus. Black students have also complained that campus police have been more apt to use unnecessary force against African Americans.

Universities also stymied the careers of black faculty by calling on them to fill administrative positions and join committees in the name of racial inclusion that slowed or undermined their tenure and promotion. Administrators created special positions and committees that sounded powerful, such as associate vice president and the task force on minority concerns, but were designed to have little authority to address institutional racism. In 1971, a group of black officials called these positions an “administrative trick” to blame black officials for the failure of the university to address black students’ concerns.

Most black faculty filled advisory positions without the capacity to make new policies or hold people on campus accountable for racist practices. The mental anguish and frustration involved in fighting for racial justice with little power or support, in addition to the time spent away from research, represent part of the harm that universities have done to the careers of black faculty.

If there is any lesson to take from protests 50 years ago, it is that campus leaders will continue to fight for their own interests after they concede to student demands. It is important to keep that in mind as conservative commentators drill the message of “soft” administrators looking for any opportunity to create “safe spaces” for black students.

Of course, activists working to change their universities already know this. They know that renaming buildings and taking down monuments aren’t signs of a new era of anti-racist administrators. As activists make broader demands on administrations for racial justice, they need public support, because the institutions they seek to transform are run by the same administrations that have maintained a system of racial inequality in the face of black activism over the past 50 years.

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Johnson is associate professor of history at Texas Tech University and author of “Undermining Racial Justice: How One University Embraced Inclusion and Inequality.”

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