Campus Racism in Historical Context

"Freedom of What Cost? Join NCSU in Wearing Black to Blackout Racism"

Both overt and more subtle forms of racism were not confined to North Carolina State University in the 1990s. On the contrary, college campuses nationwide struggled to adapt amid changing demographics and ongoing debates about race in American society. Professors John P. Downey and Frances K. Stage, for instance, investigated incidents of overt racism--hate crimes and hate speech--on college campuses in 1999. They described situations similar to the one that occurred at NC State in 1994, in which racial slurs were graffitied on campus. For example, at Brown University in the early 1990s, racist graffiti calling for "Niggers to go home" was painted on the walls outside of African American students' dorm rooms; at the University of Mississippi, fraternity members painted "We hate niggers" on the chests of two white pledges and took them to a predominantly African American campus nearby. Downey and Stage cited statistics indicating that 20 to 25 percent of minority students are the targets of such hate crimes and hate speech annually, although those numbers are likely under-representative of the real extent of the issue. Most often in this study, young white men, usually in groups, were the main perpetrators of overt racism; as the racial status quo changed on college campuses and elsewhere, this demographic felt the most threatened and retaliated accordingly.[1]

Because of the ongoing occurrence of overtly racist incidents on campus, African American, Asian American, and Hispanic American students in 1992 reported experiencing more discrimination at that time than four years previously. Arlene Smith McCormack surveyed over 200 college minority students about their experiences on campus, and she concluded that verbal harassment from other students against minorities was on the rise. She also noted that minority students often feel alienated from faculty and campus administration.[2] This last point substantiates the frustration that The Nubian Message staff expressed when they published, "An Apology to Our Loyal Readers" in 1993, and "Funding in Question for AACC Library/Gallery" in 1994. In addition to facing overt racism from fellow students on campus, staff writers, like minority students across the country, experienced a disconnect between the changing racial composition of the student body and the seemingly out-of-touch campus administration. Staff writers called for the administration to hire African American head coaches like they recruited African American athletes and fund African American campus organizations like they funded other campus organizations.

"Students rallying for affirmative action in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2003"

But their calls largely went unheeded during that decade, just as similar calls went unheeded on campuses elsewhere.[3] Operating under the assumption, too often reinforced by legislative acts and judicial decisions, that America had progressed beyond differences of race and ethnicity, college administrators and majority students advanced a "color-blind" notion of campus communities that belied the realities of minority experiences.[4] The erroneous assumption that America as a whole and college campuses more specifically should be "color-blind" tied directly into debates over institutional racism and affirmative action programs covered in "N.C. Student Leaders Indecisive Over Affirmative Action." Supporters of affirmative action argued that these programs enabled disadvantaged students to attend college and majority students to expand their understandings of other people and cultures. Opponents of affirmative action programs often argued that qualified majority students were overlooked in acceptance decisions because minorities were favored instead. Hardly resolved during the 1990s, affirmative action debates have remained a hot-button political and social issue.[5]

"Official Portrait of Barack Obama"

Overt and institutional racism continues to be a problem for African American and other minority students at NC State and colleges nationwide. In 2008 and 2010, racial slurs were again painted on the walls of the Free Expression tunnel at NC State, some of which were directed at President Barack Obama.[6] In 2014, a fraternity at the University of Michigan included racial epithets in a party announcement; the incident sparked national debates challenging the idea that America is a "post-racial" society.[7] Back at NC State, major revenue sports continue to be led primarily by white head coaches; Sidney Lowe, NC State's head basketball coach from 2006 to 2011, was the first, and to date, only African American in one of these top roles. In 2004, African American students also staged a campus sit-in to protest low appropriations for African-American student organizations.[8] Affirmative action too has suffered setbacks in recent years. In fact, in 2014, the Supreme Court upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans public colleges and universities from considering race during the admissions process. While not directly striking down affirmative action plans, this ruling will undoubtedly have an effect on race-related admissions policies in the future.[9]

Thus, as writers at The Nubian Message have asserted since their first issue in 1992, racism on and off campus continues, and African Americans continue to feel its sting. Incidents like the ones cited above therefore challenge the idea that America is a "post-racial" society.

[1] John P. Downey and Frances K. Stage, “Hate Crimes and Violence on College and University Campuses,” Journal of College Student Development 40, no. 1 (Jan/Feb 1999): 3-9.

[2] Arlene Smith McCormack, “The Changing Nature of Racism on College Campuses: Study of Discrimination at a Northeastern Public University,” College Student Journal 29, no. 2 (June 1995): 150-156.

[3] For sports, see Fitzgerald Hill and John W. Murray, Jr., “The Status of Blacks as Major College Football Coaches,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (Jan. 31, 1998): 122; Chris Hunn, “Colleges Making Little Progress in Hiring Minority Coaches,” New Haven Register, February 22, 2014, (accessed November 16, 2014). For the importance of funding African American institutions and student organizations on campus, see Douglas A. Guiffrida, “African American Student Organizations as Agents of Social Integration,” Journal of College Student Development 44, no. 3 (May/June 2003): 304-319.

[4] See Regine Jackson, Kathryn Sweeney, and Adria Welcher, “It Just Happens: Colorblind Ideology and Undergraduate Explanations of Racial Interaction on Campus,” Education, Citizenship and Social Justice 9, no. 3 (2014): 191-208.

[5] Jennifer L. Pierce, Racing for Innocence: Whiteness, Gender, and the Backlash against Affirmative Action (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).

[6] “Historical State Timelines: African Americans,” NCSU Libraries, (accessed November 16, 2014).

[7] Tanzina Vega, “Colorblind Notion Aside, Colleges Grapple with Racial Tension,” New York Times, February 24, 2014.

[8] “Historical State Timelines: African Americans.”

[9] Bill Mears, “Michigan’s Ban on Affirmative Action Upheld by Supreme Court,”, April 23, 2014, (accessed November 16, 2014).