Skip to main content

Blackballed in the Ivory Tower

From fraternities to administrative halls, American universities are failing to address serious race problems. In his new book, Lawrence Ross tells us how.

Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America's Campuses. (Photo: St. Martin's Press)

A close review of racism at American universities could hardly come at a better time. Since last fall’s protests at the University of Missouri (in response to a string of racist incidents) and at Yale University (in response to an administrative letter exchange about race-based Halloween costumes), colleges across the country are grappling with difficult questions of racial justice. Lawrence Ross’ Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses enters this conversation—a necessary polemic, if somewhat narrow in its focus. Ross is less concerned with the historical racial factors that have shaped university culture than with the daily experiences of racism on campus. The book’s target is the old assumption that racism ended with the legal abolishment of slavery—the assumption that banning something (in this case, segregative admissions policies) does away with whatever belief systems enabled the banned behavior in the first place.

As Ross chronicles, it doesn’t. In 1923—more than 50 years after Harvard University officially banned admissions discrimination and graduated its first black student—the university decreed that “men of the white and colored races shall not be compelled to live and eat together,”  effectively forcing black students to seek off-campus housing in whatever towns would have them. Such are the burdens on students who are “let in,” but not welcomed. That distinction between the notion of an opportunity (technically, black students can attend a particular school) and its reality (social and institutional forces impede those students’ success) has persisted into the 21st century.

Throughout his survey of anti-black racism on campus, Ross riffs on a few recurring themes, drawing largely from interviews with black students who attended college over the last 50 years. A favorite theme is to view the Greek system as a case study in institutional racism. (Ross’ breakout non-fiction book was The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities in 2001.)

Can we fairly expect institutions of higher education to transcend the societies from which they emerge? 

Clearly fascinated with the rituals that drive Greek life, Ross—a member of the historically black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha—tells the stories of several black students strong-armed from joining established Greek organizations at primarily white institutions, most notably the University of Alabama, where a student organization called the Machine has outsize influence on the Greek system. Though Alabama Greeks have accepted black students in recent years, the accounts of previous rejections capture a particularly insidious type of discrimination—discrimination masquerading as something else. To reject a black student, all a sorority had to do was disqualify her application based on a formality, such as an “improperly submitted” recommendation letter, while protecting itself with a public statement insisting that the organization does not discriminate.

This kind of reminder to watch what institutions do, rather than what they say, is especially urgent with all the lip-service being paid to inclusivity and diversity. University administrators are often quick to acknowledge the threat posed by racism but much slower to take personal, concrete responsibility for the problem. That tendency may not always be disingenuous; social science has long established that prejudice can be “implicit,” or automatic and unconscious. In other words, we often genuinely do not realize how prejudice influences our judgments. But any psychologically explicable ignorance is a poor excuse in the midst of colleges’ documented failure to create inclusive environments for black students (see, for example, a 2013 University of California report that found white students to be the most comfortable with their college climate, underrepresented minority students the least comfortable, and other students of color falling somewhere in the middle).

Ross’ other most persuasive riff addresses the problem of black student enrollment and the damaging effects of ending “hard” affirmative action programs that preferentially admit students based on race (as opposed to “soft” programs focused on ensuring that the most qualified minority applicants end up matriculating).

Focusing on the impact of canceling “hard” programs allows Ross to make a clever move: to shift the conversation away from the inherent “fairness” of affirmative action (an ideological morass), and onto the dire consequences for underrepresented minority populations when universities have axed affirmative action. In short: Those populations have shrunk, with black students experiencing a particular decline at flagship public universities. One common critique is that affirmative action is a Band-Aid, that what we need is to overcome larger systemic barriers to underrepresented groups’ enrollment. But dismantling those systemic causes will take a long time. Meanwhile, it’s hard to justify barring underrepresented students based on income-dependent, individual metrics, like SAT scores.

Ross identifies grounds for hope in the tradition of black student activism that, since Reconstruction, has forced some concrete change. Other good news that you won’t find in Blackballed: Universities have begun, publicly, to reflect on their historical complicity in racial discrimination. In 2006, Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice released a report outlining the institution’s historical ties to slavery, including the entanglement of the university’s early growth with profits from the slave trade. Such entanglement was the focus of Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivory: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

These historically oriented projects take up the complex task of recognizing unspoken, malignant forces that have shaped the culture of contemporary higher education. The deliberative, big-picture approach of programs like Brown’s, and books like Wilder’s, is an important counterpoint to Ross’ oral history, which focuses on students’ lived experiences, occasionally at the sacrifice of context. (For example, it would help, when Ross cites President Reagan’s policies as instigators of racially motivated campus violence, to know which policies had which effect; if you’re curious, some answers lie in a 1990 report on racial harassment, published by the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence.)

Underscoring all these analyses is yet another difficult question: Can we fairly expect institutions of higher education to transcend the societies from which they emerge? The Brown report offers a satisfying answer (while reflecting academia’s inflated ego):

Universities are dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. They are conservators of humanity’s past. They cherish their own pasts, honoring forbears with statues and portraits and in the names of buildings. To study or teach at a place like Brown is to be a member of a community that exists across time, a participant in a procession that began centuries ago and that will continue long after we are gone. If an institution professing these principles cannot squarely face its own history, it is hard to imagine how any other institution, let alone our nation, might do so.

Even if these institutions cannot transcend racist legacies, then, we have a reasonable starting point for trying to do better. It will take many variations of Blackballed before we can see the path—before we can hit on a precise, thorough diagnosis of where we are going wrong, and where the remedy lies.