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Too Black And Too Strong For White Colleges And Universities?

By Barrington M. Salmon -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Oct 3, 2018 - 10:21:41 PM

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Dr. Ted Thornhill released a recent study with findings that admissions counselors at White colleges and universities are less likely to recruit Black American students if they are anti-racism activists or if their background suggests that they are aware, conscious and fighting against the racist challenges and problems Black people face.

“The findings in the article is based on a sample of 1,034 emails that I sent to 517 schools to White admissions counselors,” said Prof. Thornhill, assistant professor of Sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myer, Florida.

“The ‘students’ had different manifestations of Blackness. I emailed two inquiries a month apart to the admissions counselors and in each inquiry, a ‘student’ from two of the four groups asked whether they’d be a good fit for the school.”

Prof. Thornhill told The Final Call that in 2015, he began his project by creating four fictitious Black high school students with varying degrees of Blackness into a series of emails. He used names on the email addresses that he thought would identify them as Black and then selected the White admissions counselors and schools to send the emails.

Dr. Thornhill didn’t say in his emails that the “students” were Black, but their names, Jamal Jackson and Lakisha Lewis conveyed that they were Black. Two of the sample letters, Prof. Thornhill said, were deracialized and racially apolitical with the “students” involved in activities such as the marching band and tutoring at a local library; while one email spoke of Black activism and Black identity, participation in an Anti-Racism Alliance and a Black Student Organization.

This email’s text also referred to the “students” desire to work with fellow students to better understand areas such as “White privilege, affirmative action, colorblind racism, racial micro-aggressions and institutional racism.”

Mr. Thornhill, a university professor, sociologist and researcher, said he used empirical research and an audit study to come up with his findings. He said he compared the response rates of the different email texts and found that the first two (without mentioning racial identity or activism) were more likely to get a response than the last two, by a margin of 65 to 55 percent.

The impact was larger when comparing the last text, which specifically talked about Black activism and White privilege, to all of the others. The response rate was 17 percentage points lower.

In an interview in another publication, Prof. Thornhill notes: “My findings revealed that White admissions counselors were, on average, 26 percent less likely to respond to the emails of Black students whose interests and involvements focused on anti-racism and racial justice. The gender of the counselor and the student also mattered. White male counselors were 37 percent less likely to respond to anti-racist Black students. And when Black women students committed to anti-racism were emailing White male counselors, they were 50 percent less likely to receive a response.”

While racism has taken on a different appearance post-Civil Rights, he said, the White power structure and individual beneficiaries are still firmly in control.


“The study is about students who may be involved in racial justice activities but it speaks to White power authority and the effort to bring in compliant, unquestioning Black students who are less likely to challenge the system at colleges and universities. Why would a for-profit organization or some other type of business be any different?”

“Some organizations would enthusiastically embrace those who call out racism but it’s highly unlike. This is a new opportunity to depreciate our lives. I think that there are a number of new racism actions—such as the ‘smiling face racism’ where actions determine outcomes without intentionality—and there is a resurgence of nasty, overt racism. We see overt racial bigotry, stereotypes, hiring people from certain schools. There are ways to reproduce racial dominance and superiority without animus.”

Prof. Thornhill’s study, which appeared in the “Sociology of Race and Ethnicity” journal, adds layers of understanding of the issue at a time of heightened Black student activism following the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown in 2012 and 2014 respectively, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition, Black students and their allies have been calling colleges and universities to account for their deep ties and association with slavery, buildings named after slave owners and pushing administrators to be more involved in ensuring that college environments are receptive and responsive to non- White students.

Oakland native Salih Muhammad was a student activist while matriculating through the University of California, Berkeley. Today he is still active in his community and is executive director of the Afrikan Black Coalition. The ABC website states that The Afrikan Black Coalition was created in 2003 by Black students within the University of California system who found the low admittance and retention rates of Black students intolerable. It adds that UC-ABC was founded to preserve the cultural traditions and political fervor of Diasporic Africans, within the student population of the UC System.

“This was a theory among a lot of student organizations, that administrators were choosing middle and upper middle class Blacks who were hanging with White people and would not be familiar with the material conditions of Black people,” Mr. Muhammad said. “These students weren’t particularly concerned to involve themselves in Black issues.”

“This (the study’s findings) would explain why the Black Student Movement is disconnected with off-campus movements. It is an excellent observation by the professor. One of the things I take away is that their calculation is a miscalculation. Although an administration may be highly selective, what students experience on campus could lead to them becoming active or activists.”

The lived experiences of Black students is very poor, Mr. Muhammad said, because the climate is toxic.

“There are cases of students finding nooses, professors treating them differently and classmates who don’t want to be in study groups with them,” he explained. Black student engagements have been nasty and campuses have been willing to bring overt and covert racists, like Milo, for paid engagements,” he said referring Milo Yiannopoulos, a British-born gay, White, right-wing commentator.

Taharka Anderson, director of Student Affairs for the Afrikan Black Coalition, said his experiences at Cal State University, Long Beach, gave him a bird’s eye view of the challenges Black students face.

We as Black men really got a taste of how wicked and blatantly dismissive of Black men these White supremacist organizations are. They acted as though we were crazy,” he recalled. He talked about lies, distortions and half-truths from administration officials and staff as he and fellow students tried to protect their Black men’s organization, the Student African American Brotherhood, from being terminated in 2012.

“Universities do not groom Black men who are going to have the intellectual or sociopolitical knowledge to challenge the actual school they attend,” he continued. “It would be counter- intuitive to teach Black men how institutions fail to provide the tools to help elevate Black men.”

Clinical psychologist Dr. Sharon Dennard said the study isn’t unusual, adding that “anyone who’s been paying attention should know.” She lamented the inability of Black Americans, young and old, to organize, strategize and mobilize.

“I don’t think much has changed. What’s different about today’s climate is that social media shows us things instantaneously,” she said. “People back in the day are to be commended. The numbers of folks they got out with none of the gadgets and platforms we have today was spectacular. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the movement worked because we were taking their money. The Montgomery Bus boycott worked because you took their money. Now, Blacks march, spend money.”

“People don’t have a sense of urgency to do something different. Everybody mouths off, but when it comes time for revolution, everyone will say, ‘I was just playing.’ It’s been my experience that people show up at a rally and then go home and do nothing else. Conditioning is multilayered to keep you in check.”

Dr. Dennard, a Tallahassee resident who has taught at Florida A&M University, Florida State University and Tallahassee, said that what seems to scare people in power is that Black people “might” do something different.

“But I see no imminent threat. I see kids who’re angry but they have no direction. Everyone is cerebral but at some point it has to leave your head. Kids want to do something but don’t know what to do. They need resources and don’t have it. Frankly, my generation has failed the generation coming behind us,” she said.

The older generation like her, put their lives, resources and efforts into the system and don’t see the benefits “and now I’m tired,” explained Dr. Dennard. “My kids want me to go off into the sunset, but my responsibility is to try to offer an alternative. This is not the time for screaming but a time for strategy. You have to get angry, then channel it and strategize,” said Dr. Dennard, who owns Nefertiti Restaurant with husband Dr. Dana Dennard.

“What holds this Republic together is that there’s no storming of the tower. They throw people some crumbs and they think they’ve made it.”

Dr. Thornhill – a student of the work of the late Dr. Derrick Bell, a renowned law professor, lawyer and civil rights activist who pioneered Critical Race Theory – said he’s not optimistic that conditions in this country will change.

“White racism is a permanent social condition in the U.S. and even given the demographics, I don’t see any change in the foreseeable future,” said Dr. Thornhill, who’s been teaching for 14 years.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t have to resist. Being a majority doesn’t mean a lot when you have other practices to enshrine White nationalist power. I think too about Apartheid South Africa. White folks have control of money, power and the police apparatus. I see no signs that White folks will (be) capitulated although there are clearly some anti-racist activists who are White.”

Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Anderson said that rather than succumbing to the ill-effects and consequences of racism, discrimination and White nationalism, Black students and their organizations are standing toe-to-toe against the assaults. A clear goal is the strengthening of the 15 Black Student Unions and their 20 affiliate student organizations statewide to meet the needs of each other and the wider community.

“In California, I think we have some of the most successful work—advancement of clearly independent and separate Black student spaces,” said Mr. Muhammad, who has been the chair since 2014.

“We also ran a campaign around student resources. We got $1.5 million for Black student resources and the hiring of Black psychologists. For us in the Afrikan Black Coalition, we’re nationalists advocating that we have separate and independent places. We’re gonna get some land, figure out how to feed our people,” he continued.

“This only real change will be Black people organizing to support ourselves. Outside of owning our own schools, I think as a people we need more focus on building institutions to support and sustain us. Now we’re looking to much bigger and impactful work. It should be clear to us that these institutions were not designed for us.”

Mr. Anderson quoted revolutionary Kwame Ture whose mantra was, “organize, organize, organize.” He said the members of the Afrikan Black Coalition are engaged in cross-campus discussions on issues as varied as campus climate issues, racism on campus and bringing Black people together across the University of California university systems and California State University.

“Two years ago, they started to allow CSU campuses into the coalition because there is strength in numbers,” he said. “We can really harness our power by organizing across campus, continuing having conversations and informing people how they can support each other, retweet and sign petitions online, political education and networking.”

“Black students should stop seeing themselves as islands. There are 23 CSUs and nine universities in California … the goal is to continue taking the state by storm."