Trouble in Paradise

On April 29, 1992, an all white jury acquitted three Los Angeles police officers accused in the videotaped beating of African American Rodney King. Within hours, riots were raging across southern California.

At the University of California, San Diego, Chicano and African American students held a protest on the usually placid La Jolla campus, one of the wealthiest and least racially diverse communities in the nation.  In an unexpected and unplanned move, hundreds of students began to march eastward toward the I-5 freeway.  Suddenly, they moved on to the freeway itself blocking the southbound lanes for several hours.

When interviewed later that day, UCSD students explained that while the King verdict might have been the trigger for their actions the real impetus was their years of frustration and isolation at the La Jolla campus.  Many of them were student activists; most were students of color. One Chicano was president of the Associated Students.  All of them represented organizations that had proposed reforms to the university that would make it more hospitable and inclusive of minority students.  All of their proposals had fallen on deaf administrative ears.  The injustice of the King verdict, the students said, was a distant reflection of the injustice the students experienced every day on campus.

For a seemingly idyllic campus hidden away from working class communities, twelve miles from the urban core of San Diego, UCSD had produced its fair share of radical student movements.  The most famous began in 1969 when a coalition of African American and Chicana students proposed a Lumumba-Zapata College in an attempt to force the campus to address minority concerns.  Angela Davis was the best-known actor in that chapter of UCSD’s history, but there were scores of others who learned their organizing skills in, of all places, La Jolla.  Somehow, whenever the national mood was conducive to student mobilization, UCSD was in the vanguard.

Flash forward eighteen years from the freeway takeover.  The UCSD campus in 2010 was physically much different but its institutional character had not changed at all.  There was a new engineering corridor, a new business school, and in general corporate influence was more visible than ever before. But the percentage of African American and Chicano undergraduates remained the same—1.3% and 9% respectively–and most students continued to find the campus climate as drab and sterile as it had been for almost five decades.

For many students of color, the climate was downright hostile. A relatively new feature of campus life was the growing presence of a Greek system of fraternities–some of them traced their origins to Reconstruction with founders who were disgruntled supporters of the Confederacy.  Many of the frat boys associated themselves with a student newspaper called the Koala that published a steady stream of sexist, homophobic, and racist screed designed to provoke and intimidate.  UCSD was a tinderbox waiting for a spark.

In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the entire University of California system appeared to be entering the final throes of privatization.  State support had dried up and so campuses would have to survive on the backs of their students by increasing fees, cutting services, and increasing the number of non-residents (the so-called Michigan model).  The vision of an affordable college education for all, which San Diego Chicano and Black communities had always recognized as an illusion, was now receding from middle-class families of every color.  The push to find revenue in the pockets of out-of-state students meant that at least some California residents would be displaced.  Clark Kerr’s dream of accessible higher education seemed as faded as the photographs of him and President Kennedy at the 1962 Berkeley graduation ceremony.

In early 2008, the Ralph Bunche Research Center at UCLA had published a devastating report on the status of African Americans in the University of California system.  With regard to the La Jolla campus in particular, it warned:

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many African-American applicants perceive the racial climate at UCSD as a hostile one, opting not to attend the campus after being offered admission.  Similarly, the low enrollment numbers of Black admits could reflect their fear of experiencing racial isolation at the university because of its exceedingly small African-American population.

Clearly, the problem at this particular campus was not admissions so much as it was campus climate and limited scholarship money. Ironically, UCSD was accepting more qualified Black students than UCLA or Berkeley but was unable to convince even 20% of those students to attend the La Jolla campus. But at UCSD administrators responsible for campus life doubled down on their “post-racial” remedies.

Although they admitted that not everyone was satisfied with the feel of the campus, they argued that generic solutions would work best.  To focus on the reasons why Black students, for example, felt uncomfortable would be divisive.  Individual groups ought not be disaggregated and studied.  After all, everyone was in favor of “diversity” as long as one did not define diversity too narrowly.  As one administrator said, “I’d rather have a broad definition than get in a fight.”

In June of 2009, several members of the UC Regents, the board of appointed officials that technically controls the university, publicly upbraided UCSD’s chancellor for her campus’ shockingly low numbers of African American students.  In September, the UCSD Black Student Union in conjunction with other UC Black/Afrikan Student Unions, Alliances and Assemblies submitted a document entitled “Do UC Us?”  Within their perceptive analysis of why the university must reform itself, testimonials such as this reflected the growing discontent:

Currently, the probability of UCSD students interacting with a Black student on campus is slim to none because there are such a small number of Black students that make up the student population.

But Black students did not reject the university.  Instead, they began an intensive collaboration with administrators designed to improve yield numbers for African Americans. Over the next few months, the BSU leadership would devote hours of its time trying to devise new strategies to convince more Black and Chicano students to accept admission and attend UCSD.

As they continued to do the university’s work, Black and Chicana students warned administrators about the hostile climate.  At a meeting of the community-based Board of Overseers in November, BSU and MEChA students spoke eloquently about their experiences. In the following days, some administrators dismissed the students as a small group of malcontents who had been programmed by the staff.

The Winter of Our Discontent

Even in February, most days are sunny and warm in La Jolla.  The UCSD campus sits high above the Pacific like a theme park for smart people.  The environment exudes safety, especially for those from the inner city, and on the surface it appears that everyone is focused on their studies and research. But beginning on February 15 a series of racist incidents in quick succession shattered the artificial tranquility of the campus.

UCSD students associated with the Greek system announced an off-campus party billed as the “Compton Cookout.” Racist stereotypes abounded—shocking many post-Obama youth—and soon the fraternities were hiding behind the right to free speech and the notion that because some Black entertainers used these images why shouldn’t they.

Hard upon this otherwise ignorant and annoying escapade, the campus closed-circuit TV station was hijacked by students associated with a racist and sexist newspaper; they proceeded to refer to BSU members as “ungrateful n***s.”  The next day a noose was found hanging in the central library. Not long after, a pillowcase fashioned into a Klan hood was found on a statue near central campus.  UCSD’s usual detachment from reality was shattered.  Students of every color staged angry but well organized and thoughtful protests and teach-outs.  A large ivory tower was cracking at the edge of the new California.

Like the reaction the Rodney King verdict eighteen years earlier, the response to the individual acts of racism was less about the acts themselves than it was about the on-going stress the campus produced in many Black and Brown students.  Even though the emotional pain that the incidents ignited in these students was deep and wrenching, the students soon switched their focus to strategies for transforming the institutional climate and ultimately the institution’s character. Yes, it was about racism but it was also about student and faculty demographics, the curriculum, and the built environment.  More important, the students understood that this was about the death throes of public education and every other devastating effect that thirty years of Reaganomics had visited upon working families in what was once called the Golden State.

As soon as things exploded on campus, it was clear the administration lacked the skills to respond effectively.  The BSU students, working with MEChA and other groups, were forced to work day and night to provide the administrators with a road map for moving forward. Amazingly, undergraduates were doing the work of vice chancellors whose annual salaries top $300,000 a year—and they were doing a better job.  After students occupied and then peacefully withdrew from the chancellor’s office on February 26, they sent her a bouquet of flowers with the message:  “It’s not personal; it’s just business.”

The students displayed a wisdom that is hard to fathom–where did they get their political savvy?  How was it that they understood more than the trained professionals who are running the campus?  If the administration was in disarray, the Black and Chicana/o students were working together in a coordinated and efficient manner.  The media stereotype of Black and Brown youth fighting each other in the prisons and high schools was contradicted by the solidarity demonstrated by BSU and MEChA.

At the height of the first stage of the insurgency, those students most driven to challenge the university could be seen at rallies and meetings still wearing their UCSD hoodies.  Rather than abandoning the university, they wanted to save it from itself.  As they negotiated with the administration, the students understood that many before them had demanded the exact same reforms. They also knew that the university bureaucracy most likely would prove to be incapable of comprehending the kind of drastic change that was needed.

To sample (and respectfully gloss) the great James Baldwin:  “Consequently, administrators are in nothing more deluded than in supposing that Black and Brown students could ever have imagined that administrators would “give” them anything. It is rare indeed that administrators give. Most administrators guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.  One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself.  If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving.”

In the BSU-UCSD settlement signed on March 4, 2010, university administrators agreed to many of the student requests.  By March 5th, the campus bureaucracy was already retreating from the agreement arguing, “This is how we’ve always done things” rather than following the students’ lead and imagining new ways to conduct business.  Promises about hiring more U.S. minority faculty began to unravel as powerful disciplines such as management and engineering dispatched their deans to lock up limited funding for their already well-endowed coffers.

The Brown and Black students and their allies envisioned a public university for the 21st century that would serve all the people of California.  The administration and most of the faculty clung to its vision of a corporatized university that would call itself “global” but for all intents and purposes would consign issues affecting Native, Mexican, and African Americans to the dustbin of the past century.

The events at UC San Diego open a window on to the future of California and perhaps the nation.  As public higher education increasingly becomes the domain of the wealthy and working class youth are forced to go into debt for a college degree, fewer Black and Brown youth will be able to attend the most prestigious universities. In California, the resegregation of public education is well underway. With only small and isolated Black and Brown communities on campus, students of color will be subjected to the casual racism that permeates the general culture.  The far right’s attacks on the President of the United States, the widespread assault on American Muslims, and every racist shtick in between will resonate across public spaces originally designed to educate an enlightened citizenry.

Will the privatization of higher education together with the changing demographics of the nation produce on a larger scale the kind of racial cauldron that overflowed for two weeks at UCSD? Black and Brown students in La Jolla–of all places–stared down the neo-liberal racial state and courageously took the first steps toward creating a brighter and more democratic future.

JORGE MARISCAL has taught at both public and private universities for thirty years.  He currently teaches at the semi-private University of California, San Diego. His latest book is “Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons From the Chicano Movement ” (University of New Mexico Press). His website is