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Scalia is right, but for the wrong reasons

For faculty members and students at The University of Texas at Austin, particularly faculty and students of color, the past week felt a bit like being under siege.

As students were dealing with the stress of studying for finals, first the campus committee tasked with implementing campus carry announced its recommendation that guns be allowed in classrooms; then a pro-gun group decided to stage a mock shooting on campus; and last but not least, during oral arguments in the appeal in the Fisher case, Justice Scalia voiced the now-infamous suggestion that black students might be better off attending “less advanced” or “slower track” schools.

{mosads}Ironically, however, opponents of affirmative action do have a point, just not the one they think they’re making. Cosmetic diversity will not solve the problems of race on campus.

Protests by students of color on campuses across the U.S. over the failure of historically white universities to grapple with racism have highlighted, among other issues, the paucity of faculty of color on their campuses, the lack of courses dealing with the cultures and histories of non-whites, and the absence of mental health and other support services for students of color in what are often hostile environments. Simply adding more black and brown bodies is not enough. Universities need to be bold and creative in how they address the persistent problem of structural racism on campus and beyond.

Students of color at UT tell stories of incredible professional success in the face of odds consistently stacked against them, either in terms of inadequate high school preparation (which sometimes leads to self-doubt), or professors and students who under-estimated their academic potential or fail to recognize their achievements.

Perhaps the best response to Justice Scalia’s comments was the amazing #StayMadAbby Twitter hashtag started by black UT alums and students.

What is striking, however, is how a conversation about how universities are failing students of color suddenly became a debate about whether these students even belong at those institutions.

We must broaden the conversation beyond pointing out that Justice Scalia was wrong, to recognizing that the court’s conservative justices may have had a point when they questioned the value of cosmetic diversity on college campuses. While they want to eliminate it altogether, the problems of lack of equity on college campuses will only be solved by more (not less) profound transformations of those institutions.

One of the main ways in which colleges have responded to the demands of student protesters, for example, is by announcing faculty diversity hiring initiatives. These are certainly needed. UT-Austin’s student body in 2015 is 3.9 percent black and 19.5 percent Latino/a, while the faculty is 3.5 percent black and 7 percent Latino, in a state that is 12 percent black and 38 percent Latino/a.

But adding more non-white bodies on campus is not enough. Universities also need to consider how to redistribute the burden of dealing with racism.

Faculty of color spend more time mentoring students of color, and generally dealing with the fallout when students are told that certain research topics are “boutique” and not a core part of their discipline, or when they feel silenced in class because the professor and other students fail to respond when they bring up different perspectives.

In many cases, such as my own discipline, Political Science, in part this is due to the fact that the study of race is still seen as marginal to the field, and many faculty members do not feel prepared to take on these thorny issues in the classroom. When it is overwhelmingly faculty of color who are expected to teach courses on race and ethnic studies, however, they are shouldering the brunt of the burden of managing student resistance and hostility to awkward or tense conversations.

So while a more diverse student body, faculty, and staff are absolutely necessary, UT also needs to ask more of itself and of my white colleagues.

One easy, and seemingly superficial, place to start would be by more honestly confronting how racism shaped the very geography of the campus. In the face of controversy, the university decided to remove the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis to a campus museum after it was spray-painted with “Black Lives Matter” graffiti over the summer.

This fall, as part of a course I taught on slavery, I took students on a tour of the remaining confederate monuments on campus. While most of them had heard of the controversy over the Davis statue, none of them knew the history of how these monuments came to be installed on campus in the 1930s.

On its website the university only says that the Littlefield monument was intended to honor soldiers fallen in WWI. Yet, as my students were surprised to discover, the original inscription to the side of the fountain makes it abundantly clear that it was erected to honor the Confederacy during an era when racial terror was rampant in the United States.

Instead of avoiding this painful history, UT should incorporate it into all the campus tours it gives to prospective students and parents. It could turn it into a teaching moment, when a clear and honest accounting of the university’s past could serve to educate Texas citizens about struggles for racial equality.

UT is a different place than it was in 1883, when it was founded as an all-white institution, but it is still not doing enough to grapple fully with race on campus. As Texas moves toward becoming a majority-minority state, limited diversity at its flagship campus will mean that its future leaders will increasingly not resemble, and know little about, the people they represent.

Hooker is an associate professor of Government and African and African Diaspora Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Race and the Politics of Solidarity and is a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.


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