Tuition protests raise the question of racial equality

Tens of thousands united on March 4 during the “Strike and Day of Action to defend Education”. Although some UC Berkeley students were turned off by the riots the week before, the day of passionate protest against education funding cuts attracted thousands of demonstrators to walkouts and teach-ins at universities and high schools throughout California. According to the Los Angeles Times the rallies were largely peaceful. In Oakland, however, about 150 protesters were arrested after they blocked a freeway, stifling rush-hour traffic.
It is clear from press reports that the central messages of the March 4 protests were heard. All the major mainstream media outlets ran articles on how the cuts to state funding have increased the cost of tuition and have put higher education out of reach of millions of students in the U.S. Another central message that was communicated successfully was the notion that groups from different educational sectors joined together and they were able to show that a powerful voting block is being formed.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the reason for the “Strike of Day of Action to defend Education” can be found in a couple of acts of desperation last year. First, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut about $600 million in overall funding for Californian Universities. Then the Universities’ regents and trustees, facing budget crises of their own, reduced programs, furloughed workers and raised tuition. Ananya Roy, UC Berkeley Professor of Urban Studies compared the 32% tuition increase over a two-year period with racial discrimination. On March 4 she said during a broadcast: “Students of color have been fighting around these issues for quite a while in the UC system … so we see this as a struggle to not only save the university, but … to make those issues of access and opportunity … visible to all.”
While at first glance the question of racism seems to be unrelated to the issue of funding, Bob Samuels, lecturer at UC Los Angeles and author of the popular blog Changing Universities, argues that it is evident from recent events at UC Berkeley and San Diego that increased racial tensions often occur during an economic downturn: “In fact, one obvious connection between racism and economics concerns enrolment policies and decisions. As many people have reported, less then 2% of the undergraduates at several of the UC campuses are African American, and although this low level of enrolment might not be blamed directly on racism, the effects of the situation is to fan racial tensions.”
A series of racially charged incidents has galvanised protests and teach-ins at UC San Diego. First, a fraternity held a party called the “Compton Cookout”, which invited people to come dressed in stereotypical ghetto attire. Then, a noose was found hanging off a bookcase on the seventh floor of the university’s library. The student involved was suspended on February 26 for her actions. While the investigation is ongoing regarding a possible hate crime, she has claimed it a “mindless” act and clarified “that it was not an act of racism”. Following these incidents Administrators at UC San Diego and the school’s Black Student Union have signed an agreement that outlines common goals, leading to an effort dubbed “Join the Battle Against Hate”.
The problems faced at Californian Universities brought thousands of students to the streets on March 4. Partly to protest against education funding cuts, but also to protest against such racially charged incidents. Similarly, as this paper has reported, in June 2009 Australian students were marching against violent attacks towards Indians in Melbourne and Sydney. Recent attacks have led the Indian government to issue a travel notice, warning its nationals to take extra precautions when travelling to Australia. Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has just returned from a three-day visit to India, where he reiterated the view that Australia has no tolerance for racist attacks.
The incidents, both in the U.S. and Australia, have caused protest amongst students against racial prejudices. Now it might be true that the student hanging a noose in the library had no racist intent. The “Compton Cookout” seemed to have looked like an innocent joke to the organisers. Similarly some attacks on Indians in Australia may have turned out not to be racially motivated. Australian police say that, at least in some of the assaults, the attackers have been fellow Indians. In the case of Jaspreth Singh, who claimed he was attacked by four men and then set alight, it turned out that he had made up his story as part of an insurance fraud that could have gained him $11,000.
Nevertheless, those incidents should not just be dismissed as innocent misunderstandings. In his book, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam reviews the latest studies of how racism works, and he documents some surprising findings. According to Vedantam children as young as three years old will associate positive traits with white people and negative traits with black people regardless of the race of the child or the attitude of the children’s parents and teachers. From his perspective, the only way to fight racism is to openly admit that we all harbour racist associations and we need to become aware of our unconscious tendencies.
Samuels explains how important educating against racism has become nowadays: “While the election of Barack Obama might make us think that we have moved beyond these race-based prejudices, the recent events at the University of California, San Diego reveal how we cannot simply escape unconscious racism … The interventions failed to get to the root of the problem, which is how do we teach people not to act on their unconscious racist beliefs. This need for education was evident when the student who placed the noose in the library explained that she did not intend to do any harm, and she did not think about the racial significance of the noose.” It seems that the protests on March 4 were more significant than one might think at first sight. They were not only asking for free education for everyone not depending on their social status or cultural background. But even more importantly, the protestors were raising awareness towards the fact that it is in those institutions it can be made possible to educate against racism.