BY MATTHEW HUNTER
Published September 10, 2009
Something is dying within the black community. I first noticed this after a summer trip to plantation Georgia, where many still proudly wave the Confederate flag on their cars or on flagstaffs in front of their houses. It's a place where some black farmers still look to the floor from underneath straw hats when in the presence of whites. It's a place that is still heavily segregated and where blacks keep civil rights complaints to a minimum — which is, in a way, similar to my experience of blacks in Michigan, pervasive even here on campus. But in Georgia, even in their quiescent activism, blacks feel and acknowledge their common hardship. It may be in passing, but if you are black, you are part of an extended family. But here, unlike in Georgia, most blacks do not acknowledge each other despite the fact that we, as African Americans, share a common struggle.
The images of blacks in the 1960s include Martin Luther King, the Million Man March, Rosa Parks, boycotts, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. We can remember and identify blacks in the civil rights era who struggled together against oppression. In the 1970s and '80s — and here at the University — images include Jesse Jackson leading the Black Action Movement in a successful strike for civil rights demands, which included 10 percent African-American enrollment. But even though the University approved BAM's requests and awareness increased, the University's African-American student population, almost forty years later, hovers near six percent. Even after the statewide abolition of affirmative action in 2006 and the atrocious state of minority enrollment, the University hasn't seen rebellion or much active dissent for civil rights justice since. The progressive, protesting black campus movements of the past are now nothing but periodically active student groups available for the six percent to join so they can find other blacks. I have yet to see recruitment efforts by any activist civil rights groups in my time at the University.
There are a number of factors silencing the movement. One prevalent explanation claims that there is less to fight for because racial inequalities in education are on a sharp decline or non-existent, especially if one considers the election of Obama, the first black U.S. president. But despite the University's stated commitment to equality and diversity, racial disparities among the top schools in the nation are vast. Jacques Steinberg, in a 2009 New York Times article, mentions the University of Michigan among schools with the highest graduation rates at 88 percent. But the University's African American graduation rates between 1995 and 2004 have been closer to Eastern Michigan University's overall average of 39 percent, among the worst in the nation. In that time, the African American graduation rates range from 36 to 52 percent, which have improved over time but still do not compare with whites.
The stagnant nature of black civil rights activism could also be a result of poor understanding of civil rights injustices. Activism of the past was a response to overt racism and bigotry. But today, racial appeals are often disguised as class appeals and racism itself is inconspicuous. In a way, it is easier to perceive and then fight against the injustice in egregious cases like racial lynchings than it is to fight for equal opportunity in education. It’s simply harder to understand that blacks are disadvantaged from birth than it is to understand that brutal violence is an injustice.
Changing racial policy requires bureaucratic negotiations, lawyers and supportive constituents. The complex nature of this process can make fighting for racial policy changes obscure and confusing. But it is possible for change to occur. When, for example, the majority of our nation supports a black president, and his racial agenda includes having a diverse administration and nominating the first Latina Supreme Court justice, some change is inevitable. But it’s important to address racial policy locally since there is a dangerous trend to equate racial change and exceptional minority success cases with racial justice. Obama's presidency will not single-handedly change social injustices like that of the educational disparities between blacks and whites.
What we need first is a greater acceptance that the civil rights era is not over. Student organizations — white and black — should publicly challenge racial injustices through protests, forums and student publications. We must begin with the truth that blacks are an oppressed group of people and must constantly consider their race and its function in society. Students should hold the University responsible to their commitment to racial justice, which should in turn encourage all students to engage in racial awareness and activism. We can then better understand and establish that sense of a common struggle and sense of brother and sisterhood that still remains between blacks in rural Georgia, where it is essential for survival.
Matthew Hunter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.