On Tuesday night, posters reading “Care about Black students?” were thrown onto the concrete throughout the University of Michigan’s Central Campus. Mere hours after an emotionally powerful and unifying gathering of Black U-M students in support of radically challenging the University’s policies and handling of the Black experience, the Black student body is reminded of the University’s true disposition: one of disregard, disrespect and outright rejection. That an anonymous member of the community felt it an appropriate representation of the campus to vandalize protest material suggests a campus-wide tacit approval of systemic silencing.
On Nov. 1, the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan published their list of urgent demands for the University of Michigan President and Board of Regents. Titled “More Than Four,” the document outlines the organization’s current political platform, which is focused on unilaterally improving the status of Black students at the University. The BSU also organized a public address at which the demands were read to the student body on the steps of the Hatcher Graduate Library. The posting of the platform on social media was met with a positive response, and the address drew a crowd of BSU members and allies alike.
“More Than Four” details a four-point platform tasking the University and its administration with actionable items to combat issues faced by the Black student body. The platform identifies the following issues for the University to address:
1. Increasing Black Student Enrollment
2. Explicitly Combating Anti-Blackness
3. Rectifying the structural flaws of DEI that systemically neglect Black students
4. The University’s Social Responsibility to Invest in the Public Good Through K-12
The BSU cites statistics from University studies in order to make their case, such as the stagnation of Black enrollment around 4.2% for the last decade (the administration having reneged on their half-century-old promise of 10% enrollment), and that Black students reported having the worst campus experience among all social identities in 2017.
“For me, (the platform) means increasing equity and advancing social causes. Overall what we’re seeking is greater equity, not only within the walls of this institution but outside (as well),” Public Policy senior and BSU Speaker Kayla Tate (she/her) said. “The fourth tenet addresses that, and aims to cultivate a broader talent pool of competitive applicants who can attend this University.”
Expanding upon that, LSA senior and BSU Programming co-chair Russell McIntosh (he/him) stated that the platform represents “an expectation of the University to confront its complicity in certain systems that have made (education) inequitable for Black students.”
The address was prefaced by an hour of community discussion at the Trotter Multicultural Center, where members of the BSU executive board briefed students in attendance of the platform and then held an open dialogue. Students mentioned grievances that resonated with many in the room: the inadequacy of pre-college programs (Wolverine Pathways, for example) in terms of funding and securing enrollment, the lack of recruitment of diverse students or initiatives that increase the University’s exposure to underserved communities and an erasure of Black culture and activism on campus, to name a few. Students also reflected that Ann Arbor as a whole similarly does not reflect the state of Michigan’s racial demographics, further ostracizing Black students and creating additional barriers for them to find community: whereas the state population is 14.1% Black, Ann Arbor is half of that at 7%. The BSU e-board stressed that, while the platform does provide some general recommendations for improving the campus climate, the onus of improvement lies squarely on the University and that it shoulders the responsibility of living up to its own expectations and policies.
This is far from the first instance of the University being critiqued on its DEI programs and initiatives. After nearly two decades of Supreme Court challenges and a reversal of Michigan’s affirmative action policies, the University continues to struggle in cultivating a diverse campus through race-blind efforts alone. Citing difficulty in increasing the Black student population through metrics such as socioeconomic status, Michigan continues to hide behind the banning of affirmative action as the primary reason for a decrease in minority enrollment. Students, faculty and scholars alike however have resisted defenses of the University’s failed attempts to diversify its student body and subsequently support the students who do land here. In his book “Undermining Racial Justice: How One University Embraced Inclusion and Inequality,” Dr. Matthew Johnson discusses the University’s historic struggle with affirmative action and how it acted inadequately in resulting diversity initiatives. In the introduction, he offers this insight:
“In the eyes of (B)lack students, though, U-M has never represented a model of racial inclusion. Black students’ share of the student body has never matched (B)lacks’ share of the state or national population, and the majority of (B)lack students have never reported satisfaction with the university’s racial climate. Nevertheless, (B)lack students’ critiques never stopped U-M leaders from claiming that racial inclusion was one of the University’s core values … I argue that institutional leaders incorporated (B)lack student dissent selectively into the University of Michigan’s policies, practices, and values, while preventing activism from disrupting the institutional priorities that campus leaders deemed more important than racial justice…University leaders [also] wanted to preserve their goal of creating a model multiracial community on campus … the way administrators tried to engineer this multiracial community led to social alienation and high attrition rates for (B)lack students.”
I strongly encourage the reader to read the original text, but this excerpt captures in full the sentiment Johnson espouses in “Undermining Racial Justice.” This year’s BSU, in parallel with student activists of the past 50 years, seeks to address this fundamental “co-optation” (as Johnson calls it) of Black voices in modern DEI initiatives that fail to tangibly realize any of the desired outcomes of said initiatives. Many Black students would corroborate this perspective; much of the reason why I decided to transfer to Michigan was its advertised commitment to DEI through buzzwords, new administrative positions like the overstaffed Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and promises of inclusive campus spaces. As an outsider, the University perfectly crafted the image of the model DEI school that Johnson references, fooling me into blindly believing that my perspectives, identity and ideas would be valued here. This elaborate performance, orchestrated by a collaboration of media presence, legacy and manufactured concern for social justice is arguably one of the University’s strongest selling points to conscientious students of privilege; it allows the University to continue pushing false narratives of the campus climate while actively suppressing both potential Black enrollment and dissent among Black students who are already enrolled.
Let me be exceptionally clear in echoing the BSU, campus activists over the past decades and Johnson in this critique of this institution: the University of Michigan is intentionally complicit in this suppression of Black student enrollment and success. The University — steered by those responsible for its administration — claims to offer a safe and supportive campus while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge the concerns students have publicly voiced for over half a century. The University’s standard excuse of being bound by anti-affirmative action rulings is in no way a proper justification for the proliferation of policy decisions that continue to negatively impact the status of Black students. There will never be enough DEI “open discussions,” feedback forms or well-paid administrative positions that can right the wrongs of the University as an institution. Tangible, measurable change in the form of implementing actionable policy rooted in input by Black students is the only way that the University may begin to rectify the outright lies and broken promises made to the campus community over the last 50 years.
MiC Columnist Cedric McCoy can be reached at email@example.com.