US – Racism at university: Silence, indifference and culpability


Administrative silence and indifference over the discrimination against African American students on campuses has added insult to injury for it gives the impression that everything is normal and whitewashes the every day problems minorities endure.

Martin Luther King’s words, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”, are as true today as when they were uttered during the tumultuous years of the 1960s. I don’t claim to know how it feels to be an African American in America or the world today but I can say that the level of silence and indifference to their suffering is endemic. As a Palestinian living in America, I often try to understand and express empathy for those who have been made to live in the margins of society, constantly demonized and blamed for their predicament. As if it is not enough for them to be structurally marginalized, the institutional racist apparatus further absolves itself of any responsibility by blaming those it victimizes for its condition.

Let me speak the unvarnished truth and assert in clear terms that America is paradigmatically racist and intensely so toward the “black” subject. Immediately, a critic will introject by stating that we have come a long way from the Jim Crow period and segregation. This is true but we have a long way to go before we can claim equality, justice and fairness in America where skin color and racially marked zip codes do not dictate your future opportunities and life expectancy.

Racism in America is well structured and is formed at the DNA level of society. Here at Berkeley, the top public university in America, one can get the delusional sense that this is the bastion of inclusivity and diversity and is on the cusp of “ending” racial discrimination. However, the reality reeks of silence, indifference and culpability in maintaining and extending America’s paradigmatic racism. How this manifests itself on a daily basis on campus – and structurally – is important.

Let’s start with enrollment and student diversity, where students of African descent (Native Americans and Latinos as well) are so few that you can hardly find any across many parts of the campus. I do understand that affirmative action is no longer part of the process but one would think that a university that is able to use a massive amount of resources to recruit top athletes of African descent would be able to do the same across all the university’s departments. The lack of affirmative action did not impact university athletic programs and their ability to recruit but, when it comes to developing the minds and future generations within the African-American community, the institutional barriers are used as an excuse for discrimination. What would have been the impact if the same energies spent to raise and barrow $335 million to renovate the football stadium would have been used to recruit more African American students and faculty members? I do not oppose athletics but for sure our priorities are misplaced considering the consequences of such decisions.

Let’s raise some more questions: Does the of lack affirmative action prevent the university from favoring disadvantaged students within its geographical region? Do we have anything that prevents the university from expanding its admission criteria or from creating open admission across the underserved and underprivileged communities? Does admission to UC Berkeley have to be confined to a self-constructed boundary of what the university is and the narrow scope of the classroom? Could the university even conceive of a classroom being greater and larger than the boundary of the actual campus and be able to develop various partnerships to uplift entire communities?

The university’s problem-solving capacity is proportional and has a direct relationship to its vision. At present and in practice, the university’s vision is responsive to and is in total tune with corporate interests and, if I may say, the dominant economic, social and political elites, which are overwhelmingly white. It is important to point out in this discussion that the term “white” does not refer to a skin color but a state of mind. Community engagement is more than having relations with corporations or rich donors that influence the university’s priorities and shape the conceptualization of a market-driven diversified mindset. Campus diversity is not about expanding market opportunity and increased sales into a new and untapped customer base.

Let us move on from the student population to examine tenured faculty members, administrative leadership and institutional responsiveness to the needs of African-American communities and students of color in general. Again, let’s not confuse the slick public relations imagery seen around campus with solid numbers, program priorities and responsiveness. Take, for example, the two buildings that I spend most of my daily academic time in, witnessing daily the invisibility of institutional diversity. Factor out the departments of Ethnic Studies, Women Studies, EECS and two others and solely examine the ranks of tenured faculty, where we see nearly 85 percent white tenured faculty members and upwards of 70 percent of those being white men. The majority of faculty members of color are not tenured and mostly fill the ranks of lecturer positions. Alarmingly, the top ranks of the administration reflect the makings of a white country club membership despite the few administrators of color who are assigned to the task of managing diversity or student affairs, which in itself is a type of exclusion by means of inclusion.

How does it feel when the only visible part of the African-American and Latino communities on the Berkeley campus is found among the janitorial service employees in buildings that purport to teach the highest ideals? Here, I am not denigrating the hard-working and extremely helpful people who put up with so much in silence but, rather I am pointing at the utter failure of a public institution to address structural racism that is being methodically reproduced daily, ultimately causing a slow and methodical death. Here, white privilege and historical racism are taken for granted despite both rearing an ugly head to obvious economic, social and political disparities.

How does it feel to be an African American or a student of color walking on campus, an injured soul suffering accumulative and generational traumas akin to a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis after returning from war? You are expected to be happy, smiling and cheering “Go Bears” but are never asked how you truly feel, if everyone in your family and community is alright and what help you might need during this difficult time. “Go Bears” becomes empty mere empty words when the institutional bear is constantly devouring all the resources and leaving the bones and scraps to communities of color and departments that represent their concerns. Here, the institutional “bear” stokes a gladiator conflict among communities of color so as to compete for rapidly shrinking resources due to the narrowing of the university’s own vision while again blaming the “restless natives” for lack of plans and strategies to address the funding gaps.

How many department chairs, vice chancellors – or even the chancellor himself – have sent a note or an email expressing basic human concern for the feelings of so many African Americans and students of color that are directly and indirectly feeling injured yet can find no one at the university who actually gets it?

Administrative silence and indifference adds insult to injury for it gives the impression that everything is normal and nothing happened since everyone at the university is “okay.” I know for a fact that it is not okay: For how much more can someone take when images and bodies are piling up? Yet, “normalcy” is the order of the day with colleagues, department heads and administrative staff and the happy images of colored students’ faces plastered all over the campus as if we are living a real-live representation of the Truman Show. Silence adds to the pain because it conveys the unimportance of the collective “we,” African Americans and communities of color, that are not included within this contemplative, imaginative rhetoric.

Is Oakland, Richmond, Pinole and Pittsburg representing the collective “we” on-campus or are the universities in those cities a part of the dangerous, unknown realm of unbeing that is disconnected from our daily lives? When we hear of death and injury to an African American or Latino anywhere in the country, do we think of our students’ feelings, colleagues’ emotions and the real need for expression of solidarity to the affected communities? More importantly, when the press kills and murders their characters in our collective consciousness, do we pick up the phone to complain and do we examine the condition of our subconscious mind which is quite possibly agreeing with what has been written? The critical question to be asked is: If education is supposedly a transformative agent, then why is it that we continue to reproduce the old and racist system at the center of higher education?


*Dr.Hatem Bazian is a Professor and co-founder of Zaytuna College, & Senior Lecturer, UC Berkeley. He has got a Ph.D. in Philosophy & Islamic Studies from UC Berkeley.
(Published in Daily Sabah Turkish newspaper on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016)