Fighting Racism in Higher Education

Throughout the last academic year, incited by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and guided by the energy and example of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, students in colleges and universities across the country have increasingly turned to protest. Over the last few weeks alone, student protests at some campuses have reached important junctures, making headlines and creating a powerful moment of possibility.

The New York Times recently provided a cursory overview of some of the more high profile protests and their inciting events. I’m certain this is only scratching the surface when it comes to chronicling racist incidents at colleges and universities as well as student efforts for change.  Sadly, students and faculty at the community of liberal arts colleges where I work (and, specifically, the campus where I was a student) are facing a very similar example of our own this week.

These student protests have mostly been in response to racist incidents at the local level, but they’re not about those incidents, not really.  They’re about a larger and widely shared problem: 21st century racism in the university.

Each has its own shape and mood, it’s own set of assets and liabilities.  But these varied protests each voice part of a unified chorus of what it is like to be nonwhite in the university.  They’re about the lived realities that exist underneath the word “underrepresented.”  They’re about the feelings of inferiority, anger, and frustration incited by life in an institution devoted to whiteness.  They’re about that whiteness, an ideology our institutions do not see and, yet, can not see beyond.  They’re about the expectation for something better from institutions that sell themselves as places that are welcoming and “inclusive.”

Though these student movements are not formally connected, and while each campus has its own particular context to address, it’s hard not to view them as part of a critical moment in higher education, one forcing a reckoning with how our institutions act on issues of race, racism, and “diversity.”  One of the lessons that’s easy to take away from these (not yet concluded) struggles is that most of those in charge of our institutions of higher education are not adequately prepared to effectively hear (let alone address) students’ concerns.

Members of the student protest group Concerned Student 1950 hold hands following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign.

Members of the student protest group Concerned Student 1950 hold hands following the announcement that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe would resign.


Fundamental to this is the way these institutions view “us”–the underrepresented, the minorities, the people of color.  They languish in the conceit that they are “moving forward” and actualizing “progress” simply by opening their doors to us.  Despite the rhetoric, what is painfully obvious is that they do not understand the most fundamental truth related to their “commitment to diversity.”  That truth is this: we do not need them as much as they need us.

“Diversity” was always made to benefit them, of course.  The university who can paint its portrait with the faces of nonwhite students and faculty wears the hue of modernity and progress.  Through our presence we allow them to embody “the future” by helping them distance themselves from their white supremacist pasts.  What’s worse, we legitimate their most addictive myth–that the ivory tower is home to only the best and the brightest our society has to offer.  Our presence is proof of their contention that entrance is now guided by merit and merit alone.  We alleviate their mid-20th century inferiority complex, incited by the Black Freedom Struggle, that forced those who studied in these hallowed halls to come to terms with the fact that they were the beneficiaries of a racist system.

Our most palpable gift to these institutions is the way we animate their moral purpose.  As they admit and enroll us they are emboldened by what they see as their commitment to the “greater good.”  We’re lucky to be here, they tell us.  And how good are they to let us in!  It’s a paternalism the student of the past will be most familiar with, one that makes “diversity” evidence of their “commitments” and inherent goodness.

Of course, our presence in the university is good and it is meaningful.  We know this.  It is one small step toward something better.  It is this knowledge, in part, that fuels the current protests.  Our real and powerful value is also indicative of the extent to which they need us.  They need us to be their mirror, to show them to themselves as they are.  Only then can they move forward as institutions–as communities–and become more like the places they believe themselves to be.

We are here to give them a chance to understand how their ways of knowing, ways of being, and ways of dreaming are not the only ways.

Our colleges and universities are vessels of whiteness, proponents of an unacknowledged project of conversion.  This is the hangover of a history of formal white supremacy in the US, a system where racial prejudice became the rationale of deciding who could have power.  Even when you alter the system, if you do not actively dismantle the ideology, you risk doing little more than cosmetic change.

The palpable remnants of this ideology course through this conversion project to which most colleges and universities are committed.  They see our value only in so far as we are willing to surrender ourselves to that project and become like them.  It’s a tired notion, laughable if not for its resilience.  It deserves to be laid to rest.  If they can learn to listen to us, to see as as truly equal, they stand to be liberated from it too, from the cage it represents.  To be truly free, of course, they also have to learn to be more like us.  That’s its own struggle, to be sure, one that has few success stories.  (At least not yet.)

The student protests now taking place, and taking shape, are about this kind of liberation. But they can not make it come to fruition.  When it comes down to it, you see, that’s not our job to do.  There is no saving to be done here.  They’ve got to save themselves!  We can speak our truth and let it enable a culture of learning, even a culture of crisis.  But we can not make them learn from it.  That is a choice they have to make.  Let our voices be an alarm bell that the time for that saving is now.

What we can do is frustrate complacency and nurture empathic understanding.  That’s much easier said than it is done, not for the processes it represents but for the context in which we now struggling.  I was a “student of color” once, too.  I remember the epiphanies, the anxieties, the disappointment, and the anger.  I remember the frustration, and the exhaustion.  As a “professor of color” in the same institutions you’re in now, I remember these because they are a part of my present.  Daily I come to terms with the fact that they are also part of my future.

It’s from that place, a place of love and caring and respect, respect for what you feel and for what you know, that I offer these reminders:

Take care of yourself and each other.  Protest can be exhilarating and affirming when we experience it as a real community.  It is also tiring and diminishing.  Respect those costs and seek to care for each other through it.  Listen to each other.  Hug one another.  Make space to learn with one another.

Don’t mistake the symptom for the disease.  We engage oppressive institutions through episodes that wound the soul, instances when the realities it produces are unavoidably clear.  Each is easily removed or reprimanded without altering the system itself.  Do not let them think this is about Halloween costumes.  If we do, we lose. In fact…

The system of higher education is nimble.  It is self-critical, liberal, and able to agree with you as it defends the fundamental core of its problems.  Its reflex will be to co-opt your energy and welcome your protest because it is designed to do so by bending to give the illusion of substantive change.  Only vigilance, and an understanding of its inherent flexibility, can provide a check against this survival mechanism.

Remember that they, like us all, are learners.  Ignorance is our start in life.  Ignorance of these matters, at this point in time…that ignorance is made.  It must be unmade.  Do not let this stifle your need to speak your truth.  Do let it guide the work of finding solutions, real and meaningful solutions.

If I did not believe in the inherent value of education, as well as the ability of institutions of higher education to be better than they are, I would not be in the line of work I am in.  Change is possible.  These places can be the places they think they are, the places they need to be.  That takes work.  Real work.

As students, you have done–and are doing–more than your share, even as you know there is much more still to be done.  Let us hope the others come to realize that most of the work rests on their shoulders.  Let us hope they learn to hear and accept their part.

A New School Year

Today I begin my 30th semester as a teacher in higher education.  With any luck, it will also be my last as an untenured, assistant professor.

A new school year always brings with it a mix of emotions and stresses.  One consistent for me for the better part of the last decade is the very specific excitement that comes with the fall semester’s beginning and the fresh crop of students enrolled in my intro-level Chicano/Latino history course.

As a class, it is the very reason I chose my vocation.  The power and meaning that comes with being able to create an academic space that is collaborative, critical, and focused on narrating the diverse experiences of people of Latin American descent in the US is an overtly political act, and a very necessary one.  So much so is this the case in our present moment that it is a point I need only casually make for my students this morning.  As Chicanas/os and Latinas/os living in the US at this time, they are brutally aware of the consequences of “not knowing” and the stark lack of human compassion that is nurtured by this.

When we put it in those terms, however, that politics is inherently about people.  And that is perhaps what sustains me most throughout the year.  What we are going to do today and throughout the semester is not just learn, but build the greater likelihood of a more just, more humane, and more decent future for us all…

one mind at a time.

To the Class of 2011

I wish you a life filled with happiness and love and peace. I hope you can protect the youth and passion you nurtured so well while you were here.

You have worked hard to reach this milestone in your life but that effort coexisted in a reality framed by a series of almost invisible accidents. Whether you are lucky more than you are deserving, or vice versa, is a meaningless debate. You are privileged to have studied, to have experienced the rare joy of moments when your mind has been immersed in possibility and creativity. Never lose sight of this.

The most dangerous thing I have heard said to you these past days is “Welcome to the real world.” The person who says this assumes two things: 1) that your life in college has been absent any of the hardships and struggles of everyday life; and 2) that the assumed luxury provided to you in your years here is not, somehow, “real.” Let me assure you–both are wrong.

For those of you for whom college life has been marked by multiple jobs, battles against the insecurity of class and race, and a war against a larger system that sought to carve you into something you would not and could not be, then I need say no more. I’ve been there, too. I’m proud of you for surviving.

For the rest who have experienced a college career marked by more nurturing than opposition, even you have not been disconnected from something real. Life–real life–is struggle. It is work. It is stressful and it is disappointing. But it is also filled with excitement, love, blind joy. It is filled with moments of celebration and caring, of passion and humanism, of being you and being given the space and resources to be you. It might not be this for each and everyone of us on this globe, but it should be. Everything good you experienced in life while you were here is also part of life when you leave and needs to be more of life for more of us.

You enter the next phase of your adult career at a moment of great uncertainty and crisis. These are good times to finish college because they afford you the luxury of knowing what is important for us as a world. You have to remember the privilege you have had; you have to protect the advantages of mind, body, and spirit which have woven themselves into you. All these and more can frame for you the work that lies ahead. The benefits of your young life should not be rare.

Respect people. Be precious with their humanity. Perfect your ability to bring these tendencies out in others.

Finally, be nice to your families. As you return to the places you call home and to the people whose emotions and identities are so inextricably bound to you, remember that it is YOU who have changed more than them. If they seem to be different, act different, or not understand you, it is probably you and not them that is to blame. Just be grateful that they care, and that they will care tomorrow.

Four Twenty

Today is an underground holiday, of sorts.  Nobody knows when it started, or how it started, but, I assure you, more people than you can imagine will partake in it.


“Four Twenty” (or 4:20 or 4/20) is something of an urban legend, (sub)cultural joke, and community-building practice all rolled into one.  (Hehehehe, he said “rolled.”)  For those of you who don’t know (and, really, if you found this, you do) it refers to a time of day (and, annually, a day of the year) when people are supposed to get high by smoking or otherwise consuming marijuana.

Depending on the generation “observing” the feast, it has been alternately a form of collective political rebellion (thumbing one’s nose at a law prohibiting the very celebration in question); a mark of a distinctive generational status (“we” get high but “they” didn’t); and a form of nurturing an “imagined” community (no matter where you are, if you get high at 4:20 or at 4:20 on 4/20 then you are not getting high alone).


As with any cultural phenomena based more on rumor and humor than on any single historical event, there’s no particular reason for this.  Legend has it that 4-20 is the part of the criminal code somewhere which makes smoking pot a crime.  It’s not, but that doesn’t stop the story from being told from one generation to the next.  Others have (more recently) linked it to urban legends about happenings at high schools (the time detention got out at one; the locker number of where one dealt the contraband at another).  I suspect the events at Columbine in 1999 may have had something to do with linking it in the collective memory to some kind of high school rebellion, but those rumors, too, are just that.

The tradition continues, however, as it probably will for the, well, forever.  As somebody who works on a college campus, I am never surprised to see the “next” generation’s participation in this version of “pot culture.”  Ten years from now, most of those doing what they’re doing, will either be non-smokers remembering their youthful indiscretions, teetotalers trying to get the “drugs away from our children,” or addicts.

Which will you be?  Huh?  Yeah, I’m talking to you.  Imagine that!  Me!  Talking to you!!  And we’ve never even met!!!  And you’re just sitting there, at your computer, with all that belly-button lint!!  And I’m using so many exclamation marks!  Did you ever notice how that word was spelled: e-x-c-l-a-m-a-t-i-o-n.  The word “clam” is in there?  And “mation”!  My god, I have to Google search “mation”!!

But, today, they were people who alter their mental state by imbibing an herb that modern U.S. society has decided to criminalize.



The Struggle We Share: A Love Letter

I delivered this address in 2007, to celebrate the impending senior year of a very special high school student, as well as the college graduation of students I had known since their first year.   I offer it now in honor of that same student–who is about to finish his first year of college–as well as the thousands of other Chicanas and Chicanos celebrating educational achievements in the upcoming months. To you all, ¡Felicitaciones!

The Struggle We Share:
A Love Letter to Chicana and Chicano Students

An address by Tomás F. Summers Sandoval Jr.
Delivered at the First Annual Raza Day
California State University, Monterey Bay
Seaside, California

May 6, 2007

We are now living in a time of profound crisis. The more I study the past the more I think that is all there ever is but, clearly, at this moment in the history of the United States, even in the history of our world, we—you and I and all of them—we are all trapped in a crisis. This is a crisis that affects you and I very personally, but you and I can also affect it.

This crisis has many faces. Right now, people of all colors and faiths, some who call themselves “American” and many more who do not, are dying in war. This is war being fought in our name, even though you and I don’t agree with it and don’t support it. However gross and incomprehensible it may seem, this is also war being fought in the name of “freedom.” Despite what politicians will tell you, wars do not make people free; they make them afraid, they make them hurt. Wars make people dead. Freedom is what comes when there is no war, the precious moments in the human past when there is peace and the possibility of more peace. Only then are people free.

Right now, much closer to the place we call home, other people, brown people, are also dying in another kind of war. People whose lives began in Mexico, just like yours, people whose lives have been filled with struggle—the struggle to eat, to love, to live—right now some of these people are dying. They die in a war many people over here don’t even recognize is being fought, but what else can we call something that takes peoples lives or fills them with violence? This war, too, is being waged in our name. This war is taking place in the desert that spills over both sides of an imaginary line called “the border.” A long time ago, men drew this line as a result of war. This line they created in a treaty of peace has, ironically, become an “open wound,”1 a home of pain, of war, and of death. Their efforts to define it, to maintain it, to turn the imaginary into a reality people can see and feel, these efforts have produced and reproduced the violence taking peoples’ lives right now. This is war. This isn’t war fought only with guns, but guns are a part. It is war waged through laws, through ideas. It is war felt in the lives of these people who struggle to live, everyday.

This crisis I need to tell you about today has another face. Like these other examples, this face is marked by violence, too. But this is a violence of silence. This violence also hurts, and even kills, as all violence does. Through it, lives are indirectly taken, slowly, for it is a silence that never lets them speak who they are or who they can be. This violence silences our humanity.

You see, silence is sometimes devastating. When it is something that denies who we are, what we have survived, what we have struggled to achieve, then silence is erasure, it is forgetting. The Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga writes: “Silence is like starvation.”2 The tragedy of this starvation, of this crisis of silence, is that there are thousands upon thousands of young people, just like you, who are struggling in it right now. The outrage of this crisis is that little is being done to stop it.

• • • •

I often try to remind myself that I am where I am in my life as a result of struggle. By this I don’t mean just the struggle it took for me to get my degree, to get a job, and to have and maintain a family. I mean, more, the struggles that have made those a possibility for me. In part, this includes my family and the other people who cared for and about me, but it is bigger than them, too.

I am also who I am because of the struggles carried by people whose names I don’t know and whose faces I have never seen. I am the recipient of other peoples’ fights for a more just world. I benefit from the efforts of people who tried to destroy a society based on fear, and on hate, one that limited who we could be. Their struggles to change a system that said Mexicans “are lower than animals,”3 that Mexicans are good for nothing but labor in the fields, were struggles waged for me, and for you. My life is the result of other people’s struggles for equality and equity, even their imperfect struggles for social justice.

In the 1940s, just after the end of World War Two, a Mexican family who lived in Southern California thought that it was wrong for their daughter to have to go all the way across town to what was called the “Mexican school” when a brand new (but all “white”) school was right in their neighborhood. This family—the Mendez family—went to court and sued the school district to end the segregation of Mexican children. When they won their court case in 1946, it didn’t just change the lives of their children, but of all Mexican children who were then learning in segregated schools in California. Their struggle for equality also changed the lives of us, of those who were not yet even born, but who could now enter a world where this kind of exclusion would be illegal.

In 1968, more than 10,000 Chicana and Chicano high school students walked out of their classes in protest. These students, who attended school in East Los Angeles, protested what they said was a school system that didn’t care about their education. In East L.A. at the time, more than half of the students dropped out of high school. Few went on to college. Counselors treated them like criminals, and encouraged them to aspire to be manual laborers. Their protest drew attention to the ways the education system was failing them. Though they were not successful at changing much in the school system immediately, that generation of students would inspire change for years to come. Classes in Mexican American history, counselors who spoke Spanish and understood Latino cultures, bilingual education, and much more resulted from their struggles.

In the early 1970s, throughout the entire state, all students were regularly given an IQ test to determine their mental capacity. Based on their test scores, students were placed into what are called “educational tracks.” Back then, as a result of these tests, most students were placed in regular classes, some were placed in gifted programs, and others—those who scored below a certain level—were placed in classes for the so-called “mentally retarded.” Thirty years ago over 55,000 students in the state were in these special education classes.

But in Soledad, California, not far from here, a group of Mexican parents, whose children were classified as “retarded,” complained. They said even though their school district gave their children the same test given to all the other students, treating them equally, they still weren’t being treated fairly. You see, these children were not fully fluent in English. Some were immigrants, others the children of immigrants, but few of them were competent enough in English to take an IQ test in it. These parents knew that their children were as smart as any, but the school district said they were “retarded.”

These parents also went to court, arguing the schools did not treat their children equitably, that is, each according to their needs. When the court ordered all children in the state to be tested in a language in which they were fluent, some 20,000 students found themselves no longer classified into “mentally retarded” classes.4

We are both products of these struggles and many, many more. Every person who suffered deportation, segregation in the workplace, or the humility and poverty of being imported as a worker into this country, we are even the products of their struggles. You and I live in a time when we can see the results of the years of toil, of effort, of struggle for change, of the fight for a decent life.

• • • •

“But what does this have to do with a crisis,” you might ask. “How is this silence?”

We live in a time of crisis, in part, because we have been robbed of our opportunity to know what equality, equity, and social justice mean, how they have changed over time, and how people have struggled to make them real. Our struggles of the past have been silenced. They have been silenced for a reason.

In the United States, people think of all rights as being based on equality. But equality—treating people the same—is only one part, an important part, of a healthy, human life or society. It must exist, but its existence does not assure us of justice. If we are all equally starving, then none of us is truly happy or free. Equity—treating people fairly and in recognition of their rights—this joined with equality is something much more powerful. But even that does not assure us of true justice. The struggles of the past often created some kinds of equality and equity for us in the present to enjoy, but they did not wipe out inequality and inequity.

This brings us to another kind of silence, the silence of our present struggle. To explain this, I have to explain how I understand “social justice.” However odd it might sound, social justice is, to me, about love. The writer M. Scott Peck defined love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Social justice can only exist with this kind of love, with this kind of nurturing. Social justice is a society where each of us can be as fully human as we can be, where our human spirit can thrive. It is one where our needs are met, not only equally, but equitably, fully, and completely.

At a basic level, education is one of those needs. Though people have struggled to provide us with what we have, what we have is not enough. Based on the figures from the last census, only 46 out of every 100 Mexican American high school students will graduate high school. That means most—54% who start in elementary school—will never finish high school. Of the 46 who do graduate, only 26 will attend some kind of college. Of those, only 8 will earn a baccalaureate degree—the college degree granted by a four-year college or university. Of those 8, only 2 will go on to earn an advanced degree.5 Eight out of every 100. That means out of every 100 Mexican American voices, 92 voices, 92 sets of hope for a better life, 92 opportunities to make this a more just world, are silenced.

In comparison, for every 100 “white” elementary school students in California, 84 will go on to graduate high school, 26 will graduate college with a baccalaureate degree, and 10 will earn an advanced degree.

This is not justice. Why this happens is for many reasons, but each of them are a reflection of how we continue to live in a society that is characterized by much inequality and inequity. What is worse, is the silence. We live in a society largely silent about this tragedy. We are in a crisis of education because we silence the needs of Latino students, because we are silent about our anger, and because too many of us are silent about our need for change. For every student who is pushed out of the system, that silence is compounded. That is a voice we will never hear speak for change, for hope, for justice.

• • • •

I worry now that I may be sounding dramatic, but issues that so meaningfully affect people’s lives are dramatic. I must not, however, sound pessimistic. Even in the midst of this crisis, of this violence, I am hopeful. Though I do not want you to think that the burden of change and progress is on your shoulders (that is too heavy a weight to bear and, anyways, there are others who must lift the lion’s share before you), you are the hope of a better future. I want you—I need you—to know this: I know the future before you is scary, but you will be alright.

All these crises, all of them, flow from a society and a world that has made a commitment to the opposite of love. We are not nurturing each others’ humanity. The violence of an unequal and inequitable education system is the way it destroys the spirit and the potential of a human spirit. The society that does this so easily, so seemingly unconsciously, does not have the right to claim innocence because they did not know. When silencing voices is the crime, not hearing is no kind of defense. But you must also know that even these tragic goals are imperfect. In you, right now, is the living, breathing symbol of their failure. When someday you graduate college, your very existence will help shatter this crisis. You are an explosion of success that can fight back against this violence as you do nothing else other than just get your education. Our struggle, now, is to make sure we are not the only ones.

• • • •

Let me close with a few parting words for you to take to heart. We must know that the 92% of Chicana and Chicano young lives who do not go to and finish college are not failures. The vast majority of them want to. They have been failed by a system that does not care whether they succeed or not. They have not been given the tools, or the valuable information, on how to move forward and achieve. Just like them, your own progress will be based on more than just the desire to succeed (but that is so important).

So, first, you must know that you are beautiful. Beauty marked your birth into this world. The fires and possibilities of a new life are powerful matters. They are mysteries to our present ways of knowing, mysteries growing evermore elusive. But somewhere deep in the recesses of our memories we know that one’s entry into the community of the living is beauty itself. When you entered this world, a force of endless potential was born. Yes, beauty marked your birth; of this be sure.

(I pray this is not a revelation to you. I hope that everyday of your life there is at least a moment when you realize that you are beautiful and good. Even if this is only a fleeting moment, one that passes as quickly as it seemed to have arrived. At the same time, you deserve so much more.) You deserve a life where at every turn and with every breath all of creation reminds you of the beautiful creature you are. But I know this is not the case. I know that for many of your days, here in this life, your beauty has been hidden from you. So I tell you—you are beautiful! If I can leave you with only one thing, this is it.

If you do not see your endless beauty, it is not your fault. We all have our moments and our phases of life where this is our struggle. To be a young person can be hard, I know. To become aware of the world around you as confusing, unknown, as limitless, and at the same time to actively forge your own sense of your individuality—to define who you are and who you will be—yes, these are frightening matters. . .

Second, I also know the fear of going to college, of succeeding in education when many of those around us continue to struggle in their own ways. College will change you, and it must. That change doesn’t have to mean losing the language—the tongue or the heart—to relate to where you came from, or to speak to the people you love. Even if they do not come with you, they do not have to become foreigners. Your sacrifice in choosing and attending a college will not have to include giving up who you are or want to be. But it will change you. What that means (for both you and them) will be for you to decide.

Finally, do not give up. Life will be filled with difficulty, and you know this already far too well. But you must also know life is filled with joy, with happiness, with love, and with community. Whenever times get difficult, whenever your struggle seems like too much to bear, remember that you are not alone. You never will be and, if you remember those who came before us, you never were.

The original was edited for factual information, as reflected below in note 4.

1. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera (Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 3.
2. Cherríe Moraga, “La Güera,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981, 1983), 29.
3. Gerald Chargin, Superior Court Judge, from transcript of 1969 trial. As quoted in Ian F. Haney-López, Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice (Belknap Press, 2003), 85.
4. This figure includes those formally decertified due to testing and those otherwise not classified into EMR classes due to fears of litigation.  See Richard R. Valencia, The Mexican American Legal Struggle for Educational Equality (New York University Press, 135-36.
5. Tara J. Yasso and Daniel G. Solórzano, “Leaks in the Chicana and Chicano Educational Pipeline,” Latino Policy & Issues Brief, no. 13 (March 2006).