Racism on Campus

Racism is alive and well at American universities and beyond.  The racist incidents in the past few weeks throughout the University of California system and country refute the simplistic notion that we live in a post-racial society, as often referred to by the election of the first African American president.

Although many conservative leaders, elected officials and talk-show celebrities, like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, talk about a color-blind society where racial minorities should not be given any “special considerations” since we live in a country where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, the ongoing racist incidents against racial minorities reveal that we still have a long way to go when it comes to matters of race and equality.

The racist acts at UC San Diego (UCSD) against African Americans include a campus fraternity party called “Compton Cookout,” a campus television program using racial slurs, the hanging of a noose on a lamp fixture in a library and KKK-like hood placed on statue outside the main library. While the organizers of the so-called “Compton Cookout” encouraged attendees to dress up in so-called “ghetto” attire, including XXXL T-Shirts, fake gold teeth and cheap clothes, the food to be served included fried chicken and watermelon.

Although many community leaders, students and UCSD officials have condemned these insidious acts, we should not be surprised that such racially intolerant and hateful actions exist on a campus where African Americans students represent a meager 2% of all undergrads.  Apart from this campus, hate crimes have occurred on other UC campuses, such as graffiti of a noose on a bathroom door at UC Santa Cruz and carved swastika on the door of a Jewish student at UC Davis.

Latino students have also been victims of hate crimes at elite public universities.  As someone who first entered UCLA as a freshman back in 1985, for example, I can still recall the stories by student activists, such as Adrian Alvarez, who led a week-long protest against the Beta Theta Pi fraternity for their racist Mexican-themed party, “Tequila Sunrise.” At these parties, the mostly white fraternity members mocked Mexican culture by dressing up in so-called Mexican attire and engaging in racist acts.

These racist fraternity parties against people of Mexican descent also took place in the late 1960s through the early 1980s when another fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, organized their annual “Viva Zapata” theme-parties.  At these parties, mostly white fraternity members displayed a Mexican flag where a hand showing the middle finger replaced the eagle with the following words: “No Negroes, no Japs, no Zapatas, no Zorros, no dogs.”

While the 1978 movie “National Lampoon’s Animal House” glorified fraternities as a bunch of kids who simply love to party and defy authority, we know full well that the real life fraternity members who engage in racist acts during their college years become influential lawyers, entrepreneurs, doctors, judges and elected officials.  Some even grow up to be the president of the United States.

Racism, however, is not confined to California’s elite university system. Racist and insensitive comments by conservative leaders occur on a regular basis.  Rush Limbaugh, for example, when referring to Haiti’s earthquake recovery efforts, argued that the U.S. should not provide disaster relief to this devastated country because we already support Haitians through our tax dollars.  This inhumane comment only promotes an environment of hate and mockery against racial minorities.

While some people argue that all we need to do is to educate those who commit racist actions, I strongly believe that until we address the systemic problems that create an environment of racial and economic inequality in this country, we will continue to see the ugly head of bigotry displayed in public arenas.

If we consider the case of higher education, instead of outlawing affirmative action programs in California and other states, we need to re-instate and expand these programs, now more than ever, to address the historical and structural inequalities that remain rooted throughout the U.S..  While UCLA and UC Berkeley have taken positive steps in implementing a comprehensive review approach toward undergraduate admissions, the current ban against affirmative action restricts the amount of underrepresented minorities at the best public universities in the world.

Moreover, it’s not enough to have Brad and Jane take a required class on Chicano or African American history at the university to make them more sensitive to diverse cultures.  We need more racial and class diversity in higher education to reflect the interests of racial minorities and working class individuals from the inner-cities and rural communities.

Until people commit themselves to systemic and progressive change in this country, university students, conservative cable-hosts and average Americans will continue to resort to the policies and practices of the Jim Crow era when racial segregation and discrimination ruled the day.

ALVARO HUERTA is a doctoral student at UC Berkeley. He can be reached at: ahuerta@berkeley.edu


Dr. Alvaro Huerta is an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of “Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm,” published by San Diego State University Press (2013).