“Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”
The words of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates echoed through my head as I scrolled through hundreds of #BBUM tweets — a movement about Being Black at the University of Michigan — reading about the challenges Black students face on campus. Some are as subtle as being glared at during walks to class, while others are far more visible, like being accused of stealing a chair from Angell Hall.
Sadly, modern racism has evolved from explicit statements of loathing and prejudice to gestures and words coated with a layer of distrustful scorn. As #BBUM has shown us, many students can attest to facing this subtle racism. Far more students could attest to being complicit in these acts, if only they were aware.
There are countless actions individuals commit every single day that are deeply rooted in some kind of racial bias, one that many of us probably don’t even notice — whether it’s picking up your pace after you see a group of Black men, or doubting the legitimacy of someone’s opinion “just because.” You would be hard-pressed to find a person — White, Black, Hispanic, or otherwise — who does not have a single racist bone in their body. Society pumps racial biases into our brains from the day we’re born, and this subconscious prejudice forces us to make assumptions and decisions contrary to the logical, anti-racist positions most of us hold.
The first step to solving any problem is admitting that there is one. While we, as individuals and as a collective student body, must face the fact that we all hold some unfair prejudice, the University has its own demons to face as well. College should teach us how to lose the racism that’s been programmed into us, but instead it appears that many of us make little real progress during our time in school. If administrators truly plan to take action toward race relations, then they must fully come to terms with the realities of our campus. This would mean addressing the need for all of us to face our inner biases, as well as an admission they’ll probably hate to make publicly: The University is no longer a racially diverse school.
Though this seems to be no secret among the student body and several faculty members I’ve spoken with, the University itself still pushes the image of a diverse campus on prospective applicants, donors, and the student body itself.
Since 2006 — the year Michigan voters banned affirmative action policies in public institutions — the enrollment of underrepresented minorities at the University dropped some 30 percent. Combined, Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans make up less than nine percent of all students at the University.
I hate to admit it, but my school simply isn’t diverse — and while saying negative things about the University certainly won’t help our image, ignoring the truth will do far worse damage to campus race relations.
Accepting our inherent prejudices and the woeful state of diversity should not make us all feel ashamed, but motivate us to accept the challenge of defeating these problems. So we all hold some inner racism? Maybe instead of our easy-to-fulfill race and ethnicity requirement, we push students to actively engage and fight their inner biases through more rigorous, soul-searching experiences inside and outside of the classroom. So our campus is no longer diverse and race-based affirmative action is off the table? Maybe we can fight dropping minority enrollment by instituting income-based affirmative action and focusing our recruiting efforts on racially and socially diverse areas like Detroit.
No, these ideas are not silver bullets to improving race relations on campus, but if the Board of Regents and administration plan on keeping their promise, they need to engage the student body and translate their intentions into actual policy. More flowery statements about a need to “create safe spaces” and “celebrate diversity” to placate those who took action in the #BBUM campaign is simply an insult, and students should not take administration seriously until we see actual policies aimed at fighting racism.
At the end of the day, this is a campaign to be led by students. With the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela this weekend, we should be reminded that no change happens without action. We as students are not powerless — the future of the University is in our hands if we want it to be. Our collective words and actions can determine exactly the direction our school takes if we set our minds to a goal. A wildly successful social media campaign has gotten a response from the University and woken up students, faculty and administrators to the realities of racism and Black student life on campus.
They’re all listening very carefully — it’s time to make a statement.
James Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.