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Why have the demands of black students changed so little since the 1960s?

What’s new about black students’ demands? Beverly Yuen Thompson, CC BY-NC

Why have the demands of black students changed so little since the 1960s?

The student protests at the University of Missouri and on other campuses across the country have brought greater attention to the educational plight of black students.

The protests have exposed how experiences of black students in predominantly white campus environments are cloaked in isolation, invisibility and downright disregard for their rights.

Sadly, campus racism is not new, and neither are the demands of black student activists.

In my role as an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Indiana University’s School of Education, I study black student experiences in college.

My book, Culture Centers in Higher Education, was the first to focus on the establishment of campus culture centers. These centers emerged as a result of the demands from activists during the student movements of the late 1960s to provide safe and welcoming spaces for students of color on campuses.

Over the past week, I have thought about the present context of black student protests in relation to the protests of their 1960s counterparts. And one thing is clear: the current student demands closely resemble those made by students in the 1960s.

Pattern of demands

Let’s look at students’ demands in the ‘60’s and '70’s to understand their similarity to today’s demands.

What did student demands look like in the 60s. Village Square, CC BY-NC

Student demands typically included an increase in the number of faculty, greater recruitment and scholarships for black students, more courses on black history and black experiences in the curriculum, and setting up of a center to serve as a place of refuge from an otherwise racially hostile campus environment.

These early demand letters dating back to the late '60’s often followed a similar structure, which included a preamble stating the overarching issue, followed by a list of demands.

For example, a November 1968 letter of student demands at Reed College in Oregon started with the following preamble:

Reed is actively recruiting black students. They bring us here, force us to study the culture of our oppressors (Europe and America), and then neglect our own contributions to civilization. Black people are different. We come from a culture (history and language) and must face a different environment than white people after graduation. Reed does not answer this need.

They go on in this letter to ask for a black studies program. The Black Student Union asked to select the faculty who would teach in the program and wanted control over the curriculum until black faculty were hired to lead it.

Similar demand letters were drafted at other universities.

In May of 1968, the the Afro-American Association at Northeastern University, based in Boston, demanded 50 scholarships for black students as well as curriculum changes to include an Afro-American literature course, an African language course and other cultural courses. They later expanded this initial set of demands to include a black studies program and the establishment of an African-American institute.

Two years later – on October 3 1970 – students at the University of Florida raised similar issues.

This university operates in such a manner as to unjustly exclude black students and professors, and to underemploy black personnel – and damn little is being done to correct the situation. On the contrary, many influential persons are operating under the illusion that progress has been made. To do so is to compare the present to the past without realizing that neither extends a modicum of justice to more than a handful of blacks. There have been many meetings and few results.

They continued with such demands as the recruitment and admission of more black students, establishment of a department of minority affairs and hiring more black faculty.

Student demands in the present

Fast-forward nearly 50 years and the demands from black student activists at the University of Missouri, Yale University, University of Kansas, Emory University, UC Berkeley and other schools across the country look eerily similar.

Today’s students are asking for many of the same things as the students in the ‘60’s. COD Newsroom, CC BY

Students still want a more inclusive curriculum that reflects their experiences, an increase in black faculty, efforts to recruit and retain black students and establishment of a safe space on campus, such as a black culture center.

University administrators in the 1960s may have been unprepared for the influx of black students to their campuses, but it appears that even 50 years later, they remain underprepared and uninformed.

In the 1960s, students wanted more black people in faculty and leadership roles. Today, black faculty and administrators do exist but make up only a minuscule fraction of the entire faculty nationwide.

So, for instance, in 2013 only 6% of faculty were black, and in 2011 only 6% of college presidents were black. The fact is that an overwhelming majority of faculty and institutional leaders are white (80% and 90%, respectively).

Following their demands, many black students in the 1960s got culture centers. However, these culture centers are typically deprioritized and viewed as promoting separatism.

These days, institutions are appointing senior diversity officers who serve as top campus administrators. Their role is to conduct strategic planning and implementation of the large-scale diversity initiatives on campus.

Often, their division or department encompasses the work of culture centers. As a result, these senior-level administrators and their culture center counterparts are expected to “do diversity” while other campus entities are relinquished from the same responsibilities.

In addition, the strategic plans designed to foster diversity can often contribute to the negative racial climate on campus by relying on language that positions people of color as outsiders.

Ultimately, students of color feel excluded despite efforts to promote inclusivity.

Institutional responses to student protests of the past, in other words, have not resulted in steady progression. At best, it is a case of three steps forward and two steps backward.

Dealing with racial realities

The point is that post-secondary institutions are simply unwilling, it seems, to engage in substantive change for racial progress.

The fact that demands of black student activists, both past and present, remain similar illustrates this reluctance. Black students continue to be disenfranchised, which creates the ideal ground for more protests to emerge.

Perhaps black student activists should be demanding something different. I am concerned that when institutions (attempt to) meet the commonly documented demands, it could make black students feel (even if momentarily) a false sense of vindication.

The reality is that little systemic change will take place as long as institutional leaders, faculty, curriculum and culture remain predominantly white.

Racism flows throughout post-secondary institutions in ordinary, predictable and taken-for-granted ways. For every effort made to meet student demands, several more incidents will create a negative campus racial climate.

But that doesn’t mean that the protests should stop.