Recently, my colleague Edward J. Smith, Senior Policy Analyst for NASPA’s Research & Policy Institute, produced a powerful personal reflection responding to President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. As a man of color, he offered up what he believed were some successful and culturally relevant strategies used to ensure his success. After carefully considering the morals of his personal story, two related, yet distinctly critical questions emerged from my analysis: (1) What is the underlying issue not being explicitly discussed? and (2) What will it take to ensure the success of initiatives, such as My Brother’s Keeper?
Therefore, to follow up on Edward’s passionate reflection, I would like to offer a little commentary of my own from the perspective of someone who is not a person of color, yet remains unabashedly passionate about equity and inclusion in educational settings. In the spirit of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, I’ll address what I believe is another critical piece to the student success puzzle—especially for students of color: the genuine commitment of all educators to the success of students of color. In other words, the idea that WE are my brother’s keeper.
Q: What is the underlying issue distinctively omitted from the discussion?
First, consider recent national media attention involving campuses from across the country. The #BBUM hashtag, which stands for “Being Black at Michigan,” became a popular trending topic on Twitter as Black students attending the University of Michigan expressed their complaints about the uncomfortable campus climate for Black students; meanwhile, a spoken word video went viral after the Black Bruins student organization at UCLA passionately presented discouraging institutional data such as the fact that UCLA has more NCAA championships than Black male freshmen.
Concurrently, Harvard students also initiated a trending Twitter hashtag: #itooamharvard. “I, too, am Harvard” was presented on a Tumblr page as a series of images showing students of color holding signs with meaningful phrases or comments the students had experienced, such as “You’re lucky to be Black…so easy to get into college” or “You don’t sound black…you sound smart.” Back on the West Coast, students at California State University-Los Angeles recently organized at faculty senate meetings to demand that a course on race and ethnicity become a requirement of the general education curriculum. And in Mississippi, three white students are facing criminal charges and were expelled from their fraternity because of their expected involvement in the vandalism of the statue of James Meredith, the University of Mississippi’s first Black student and a symbol of Black history at Ole Miss, which was found with a noose hung around its neck and draped in a flag bearing the Confederate battle emblem during Black History Month.
These incidents alone are troubling and support the extant literature suggesting that many students of color perceive predominantly white spaces in higher education to be unwelcoming and unsupportive. And let’s be frank: the majority of students of color participate in predominantly white spaces when it comes to U.S. higher education, with whites still making up nearly 70 percent of all faculty, administration, and staff at all institution types, so ignoring or dismissing these experiences would be insensitive and irresponsible. What is more troubling, however, is the fact that 90 percent of college presidents say that, generally speaking, the state of race relations on their campus is good—this despite the absence of data suggesting that anywhere close to 90 percent of students of color feel similarly.
All of this suggests to me that there is a disconnect—a disconnect that we cannot afford to ignore. Given the continued prevalence of these issues on our nation’s college campuses and the persistence of disparities in educational outcomes, it is critical that institutional personnel acknowledge and understand the ubiquitous nature of racism in higher education, as well as how truly far-reaching the implications are beyond the Black and Latino male student population.
Q: What will it take to ensure the success of initiatives such as President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper?
A: The culturally responsive support of all educators.
We know from these recent events in the media and previous research that students of color experience unequal outcomes and unwelcoming environments in various forms and in various contexts across campus. So to the professor who claims that it is not her responsibility to worry about the way students perceive the classroom environment because colorblind meritocracy exists, I say that research suggests otherwise; to the administrator who says the policies of her institution are producing outcomes that match its espoused values of equity and inclusion, I say prove it with data; and to other university personnel who think that cultural competence is not relevant to their jobs, I would ask one to think of a scenario when culture does not influence the way we interpret our experiences.
As Shaun Harper, executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, often reiterates in his research: in order for the higher education community to really make progress on closing the achievement gaps, responsibility for the success of students of color must be assumed by the entire institution. It should not be assumed that faculty of color, the multicultural student affairs office, and the chief diversity officer will bear the sole responsibility of ensuring the success of students of color. All educators must assume responsibility for the success of all students. All students must be considered in the process of developing and implementing campus programs and support services. Institutional policies and practices should be reexamined to ensure that they are producing equitable outcomes and inclusive learning environments.
In a conversation with my colleague Edward Smith as we were collaborating on these commentaries, he observed that the line of thinking discussed here “would surpass paternalistic and sometimes pejorative language and ideas, and move us into the realm of improving diversity and cultural sensitivity of all faculty and staff. It would have us engaging in the hard, intellectually demanding and sometimes emotionally gut-wrenching work of intergroup dialogue that is necessary to make progress on these difficult issues.”
In addition to a change in mindset, Edward also suggested very tangible steps educators can take to increase their knowledge of diverse issues, such as participating in conversations similar to that found at the most recent NASPA Annual Conference, where conference attendees witnessed NASPA leadership host a trans-racial, trans-cultural forum to explore the powerful recommendations advanced by a recent NASPA Research and Policy Institute publication, 5 Things Student Affairs Administrators Can Do to Improve Success Among Men of Color.
I have no doubt that the research undertaken and the recommendations and commitments espoused by the My Brother’s Keeper initiative will be informative and advance our understanding of these important issues. However, we cannot simply rely on a handful of organizations to research and prescribe best practices for a higher education system so rich with diversity. Much like politics, the action really takes place at the local level, or in this case, at the campus level. Ultimately, the effectiveness of initiatives focusing on the success of students of color will rely on the collective efforts of entire campus communities according to their unique needs.
Therefore, I challenge us as a higher education community to do some self-reflecting and conduct a realistic assessment of our commitment to the success of students of all races and ethnicities on our campuses. Because when it comes to college student success, truly, WE are my brother’s keeper.
Follow me on Twitter: @C_RobShorette