Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on skin color, black students who enroll at predominantly white colleges in the USA still need what University of Michigan student Tyrell Collier calls “tough skin.”
A string of recent examples helps to illustrate. Three white students at San Jose State University in California were charged in November with hate crimes, including calling their black roommate derogatory names, writing racial epithets on whiteboards in their suite, and, at one point, hanging a bicycle lock around his neck.
About a week later, a member of the student government at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln used the N-word during a committee hearing in which he opposed a resolution encouraging student representatives not to use derogatory language in everyday speech.
Black students who attend highly ranked selective institutions such as Harvard or Princeton generally have graduation rates that are very close to those of their white peers, the journal reported. In a handful of cases, including at Wellesley and Swarthmore, the graduation rate is higher for black students than for whites. Yet overall, a racial gap continues. Among the nation’s largest universities that participate in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I, the graduation rate for black students (not just athletes) was 44% last year, compared with 66% for white students
Black men fare worst. In a somber, statistics-filled spoken-word video available on YouTube, UCLA student Sy Stokes notes that just 48 black men entered UCLA in fall 2012. If current trends continue, he says, just 35 of them will graduate within six years. “Stop pretending that the wounds of our past have been healed,” Stokes says in the video, which has been viewed by more than 1.7 million people since November. “Every black student in class feels like Rosa Parks on the bus.”
University administrators acknowledge the challenges many minorities face. University of Michigan officials agreed in late January to spend $300,000 to renovate a multicultural center on campus, one of several demands made by the Black Student Union. Janina Montero, UCLA’s vice chancellor for student affairs, said in a statement responding to Stokes’ video, “We certainly recognize that the low numbers of African Americans and other underrepresented students on campus does lead to a sense of isolation and invisibility.”
Most large institutions have developed a range of strategies, including establishing multicultural centers and offering summer transition programs, to create a more welcoming environment for minorities and increase their chances of academic success. Yet a 2012 study by University of Pennsylvania researcher Shaun Harper found that, of 219 black men who excelled academically, participated in leadership activities and were involved in student groups, many credited their success to a strong relationship with a black peer — typically an older male student.
“The most important thing is finding your place in a community within that university, a community of people that can support you in your journey,” Collier says.
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