One of my friends, Dr. Tommy Whittler, is a very talented and prominent Psychologist. Dr. Whittler once told me that when he was training rats in the lab, he would sometimes become frustrated with the fact that the rats would not do what he believed he’d trained them to do. His mentor would always correct him with a reminder that when the rats do things that deviate from his intended outcome, it was likely due to the fact that he may not have done his job properly. His mentor would say to him, “There is no such thing as a dumb rat. There are only dumb trainers.” Dr. Whittler went on to become an outstanding scholar because he learned how to properly critique his own behavior.
While human beings are certainly not lab rats, a similar analogy can be applied to college professors working with their students. Sometimes, college students do things that disappoint us: Some choose to drink till they puke every weekend and become lifelong alcoholics. They might commit violent acts against each other, sometimes as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. Some choose to engage in irresponsible sexual choices and end up with venereal diseases and unplanned pregnancies. Also, they sometimes say or do things that are terribly ignorant, racist and insensitive.
When it comes to instances of racial insensitivity, the response from campuses is usually the same: the administration condemns the act and begins the grandstanding process. They tell the world that “this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated on our campus.” They also hold forums about what happened, possibly expel the students responsible for the behavior and then put the incident behind them as quickly as possible.
That is probably what will happen at The University of Missouri, where some white students are accused of putting a line of cotton balls in front of the black culture center, reminding those inside that they are the descendants of slaves. I wonder what the response will be at The University of California at San Diego, where some fraternities held an off-campus party called a “Compton Cookout,” instructing the women to come to the party as “ghetto girls,” with gold teeth and “booty shorts.” They were also kind enough to serve fried chicken and watermelon in their event designed to “honor” Black History Month.
Should the guilty students be the targets of blame by the administration? Sure, they deserve much (if not most) of the blame. They are adults, after all. But perhaps as educators and university administrators, we should realize and respect our obligation to educate the students on issues of diversity. Perhaps if we are truly honest with ourselves, we will find that the students are nothing more than products of an environment that has served as an incubator for racial hatred and ignorance. Students are, in many cases, reflections of the environment that has been created by the adults around them. So, ignorant behavior might be expected.
If I were sitting with the administrators at UC San Diego or The University of Missouri, I might ask them these questions:
Are your students required to take classes on Black History, so they can learn about the struggles of African Americans and the bloodshed necessary for us to achieve our liberation from slavery and Jim Crow?
Are students taught cultural sensitivity, so they can understand why people of color might find these actions to be offensive?
Are students being exposed to diverse university faculty, or are they like many other college students, who only have one or two black professors over an entire four year period?
Does your university consider faculty diversity to be a priority and what is the evidence that you are working to attract and retain African American professors?
The students behind the incident at The University of Missouri have been arrested. Since their crimes appear to be racially-motivated, their charges have been upgraded to Class D felonies. While our natural instinct might be to make an example out of these young men, I would be curious to know if they understood the magnitude of their crimes when they were committed. Were they trained to fully understand the history and baggage inherent in their social transgressions, or were they frustrated, young students engaging in a college prank. This does not excuse their behavior one bit, but should they go to prison for something that they didn’t realize to be so serious? Yes, they should be punished, but the adults and institutions who may not have educated these students on diversity and race should be punished just as much. I am willing to bet that 19-year old Sean Fitzgerald and 21-year old Zachery Tucker, the U. Missouri students arrested for the cotton ball incident, would not have committed their crimes had they been forced to take a black history class.
In order to make permanent change, these universities must reassess the racist foundation on which their campuses were founded. They should step back and realize that in 1839, The University of Missouri was founded, designed and structured in a way that did not factor black people into the equation. Now, like a sick patient getting messy surgery, the social, intellectual and administrative infrastructure of the campus is in constant conflict with an American society that differs greatly from what the founders of the campus envisioned. This requires a consistent and courageous reassessment of how students are taught, and how things are done. Without engaging in this effort, your institution may remain an incubator for racial hate, latent anxiety and suppressed hostility. Racial equity is far deeper than holding hands and singing “Well shall overcome.” Achieving Dr. King’s dream is going to require hard work.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the book, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about College.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.