Once again, students are protesting entrenched inequities. Building on grassroots movements for justice such as Black Lives Matter and decades of student organizing, these demonstrations at colleges and universities are inspiring but not surprising. Students’ demands expose a pattern of neglect and outright exclusion generations in the making.
From schools as varied as the University of Missouri, Amherst, Brown, Claremont McKenna, the California State Universities, Yale and Occidental College, students are calling for open and just universities. This entails the fostering of inclusive campus climates that root out racial, class, gender and sexual oppression. They are pushing for an increase in the admission of students of color; more critical race, gender, queer and dis/ability studies courses; the implementation and full funding of Black studies, Chicana/o-Latina/o studies and Indigenous studies; the hiring of additional Black faculty and other people of color; and the removal of select administrators.
Some demands link a struggle against institutional racism with an emphasis on greater public investment in schools that involves paying living wages to university workers, eliminating student debt and abolishing tuition. By focusing on economic transformations, exclusionary school structures, and everyday dynamics on campuses, these broad and inclusive demands are about institutional transformation.
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Decades of investment in public schools after WWII and the student and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s helped address systematic inequality. This included opening the doors to more students of color, women, working students and veterans – improving the lives of generations. These early struggles also set in motion the formation of ethnic studies classes, programs and departments. However, these were just the beginning, and institutionalized racism and class inequality remain.
Many of the important gains of the past have been eroded by over three decades of economic reforms and cutbacks in social programs. This has resulted in a growing race and class gap. Between 1979 and 2012, the income of the top 5 percent of the economic ladder – those families making over $210,000 per year – increased over 70 percent. In contrast, the income of those in the bottom half of the economy basically stagnated, or slightly decreased. The compounding of a legacy of racism and generations of inequities is epitomized in the staggering wealth gap. As the Pew Research Center has documented, in 2013, the median net worth of white households was $141,000, compared to $14,000 for Latina/o households and $11,000 for Black households – racial wealth gaps not seen since 2001.
As inequality has increased and the need for college degrees has intensified in our new economy, access to college has become ever more competitive. Once characterized as the great equalizer, colleges and universities have succumbed to the marketplace through increased requirements and skyrocketing costs. For example, in 2004, 432 hours of minimum wage work was enough to pay for a year of tuition at the California State Universities. In 2015, it took 853 hours of minimum wage work to cover one year’s tuition. Meanwhile, the US government’s emphasis has shifted from student grants toward loans. So, working students rather than taxpayers are covering more of the costs of higher education. They are then overburdened by college debt in an economy that doesn’t provide many well-paying jobs.
Disinvestment in our schools has occurred as the percentage of students of color has grown. Just last year, much was made about the National Center for Education Statistics that white students are no longer the numeric majority in K-12 public schools. Despite this pronouncement, most institutions have not kept pace with the changing student population. As students work harder than ever before to get into college, many find campuses that ignore them or that view them and their communities with suspicion.
Fifty years after the civil rights and student movements, whiteness and economic privilege still dominate school cultures. Reflecting on his experiences at Claremont McKenna College, student Carlos Ballesteros shares in The Student Life, “Maybe most of us have felt out of place at Claremont McKenna College for one reason or another, but my feelings of not belonging cut deep across economic and racial lines. It was uncomfortable coming to CMC and seeing my home being better represented in the poorly paid, working-class staff rather than those more central to managing the school’s trajectory and curriculum.”
Course curriculum, faculty positions and college and university programs at many schools are still Eurocentric. The histories, experiences and perspectives of people of color, women and LGBTQ communities are distorted, if not absent, in many textbooks, classes and campuses, providing incomplete and inaccurate information. Ethnic and gender studies perspectives remain marginalized in underfunded programs and departments. In our K-12 system, school boards such as in Texas, along with the big textbook companies, have ensured that this history and these voices are marginalized.
There are still very few administrators and faculty of color. As Casey Quinlan recently documented at ThinkProgress, “Only a few of states’ flagship public universities have a percentage of teachers of color above 5 percent … These percentages generally aren’t matching the share of students of color on these campuses.” This racial/ethnic gap between teachers and students in our K-12 system is not as glaring, but the ramifications are just as great.
As decades of research attests and courageous students have recently shared, some endure daily assaults to their backgrounds. Students of color, working-class and gender-nonconforming students, staff and faculty still encounter chilly or outright hostile campuses. They are questioned about their presence and knowledge, assumed to not belong and forced to defend their identities. In many cases, overt forms of racism and sexism may have subsided since the 1970s. However, even these forms still raise their ugly head in hate crimes and hate speech.
For some, these patterns at schools may not be surprising, since they reflect practices and dynamics throughout the US. However, they are especially pernicious in places of learning, living and working. As students have made abundantly evident, not only do such exclusionary institutional and everyday practices impede livelihoods, but we all suffer when sites explicitly devoted to learning fuel inequality and are not part of the process of building a more just society.
As they have for generations, students are stepping up, organizing and providing concrete strategies for change. We must all take heed of their lessons and work collectively to unearth the roots of systemic inequality to ensure that our schools and society work for and with all.