Every time a racial issue occurs in our own community there are a number of parallel conversations that take place. First is a discussion about to what extent the racial incident was actually a racial incident. Second is a discussion about to what extent the incident does or does not mean that Davis is an overtly racist community. And third is a discussion of the merits of the remedies.
What becomes clear in these discussions is that, at least on the Vanguard, there is a wide variety of perceptions of what this community is like, and that whites and people of color have very widely divergent experiences, and therefore perceptions, about the community.
If you listen to blacks and Latinos describe their perceptions about their everyday experiences in this community, you might have trouble believing it is the same community that white people experience. That there is a racial divide in this country to this day is a point with which I think most would agree, but that it is as stark even in a small like community like Davis, many may not appreciate.
Part of my frustration over the last week has been that, for once, there has been a series of well thought out and articulated “demands” by African American students at UC Davis. While some of the new ones appear to be relatively non-controversial, at least in terms of racial issues, some of the initial demands from 2015 appear more controversial.
The notion of safe spaces appears to be at the center of a more national controversy. The right has pushed back on the idea of “safe spaces,” seeing that using the term “safe” connotes an image of fear of violence instead of being used to shield the students from ideas or statements that might be seen as offensive.
The ASUCD President used the term “unsafe” to describe how African Americans felt on the UCD campus. Some took this, in the aftermath of a violent attack on a student, to mean “safe” from violent attacks, but my read is that this is much more complex than either the conservative criticism or the ambiguous use of the term “safe.”
Over the years, what I have heard in conversations and discussions is that African American students, as extreme minorities in the population, feel “uncomfortable” in Davis. Some of this may be self-consciousness that they feel like they stand out in a heavily white town. But then there are allegations of racial profiling, walking and driving while black, and even disparate treatment in places of business and eating establishments.
In that context, safe doesn’t mean protection from physical attack or even protection from ideas, it means being in a place where they don’t have to be the extreme minority that everyone is looking at.
The problem we get into quickly is the pushback from those who see requests and demands for a safe space as a parallel to the desire for segregation, such as the Jim Crow exclusion laws in the south. Should whites have a safe space?
One answer to that question is that whites have many “safe spaces” as the numerical majority and the dominant group in society. Another point is that Jim Crow laws were meant to enforce segregation as a way to maintain white supremacy in society, whereas a safe space is a way to give a vulnerable minority a place to breathe without the social pressure of being the one African American student in class.
What a lot of the pushback is missing is that racism is not simply prejudice against another race, it necessarily entails power. Racism not only implies that someone holds a set of prejudices against someone from another race, but it specifically implies oppression. Jim Crow was a means to use separation between the races to specifically keep the black people of the south as second class citizens.
Safe spaces do not have the same purpose or implication.
It is in this context, then, that we understand the student Recruitment and Retention Plan.
The students articulately laid out their concerns: “Black representation at the UC has not increased from where it was twenty years ago. And while the rate of Black high school graduates in California has increased, there has only been a .3% increase in the enrollment of Black students into UC Davis since 2007.”
They continue, “Furthermore, since the passing of Prop 209 in 1994 that banned affirmative action, Black students have been underrepresented in the admissions pool with respect to our application numbers.”
They argue, “With low graduation rates (33% within 4 years for the 2010 cohort) and a small presence (3.2%), there is a critical need to retain and recruit Afrikan & Afrikan American students at UC Davis. Compared to Afrikan & Afrikan American students, white students’ performance level is 200% greater, demonstrating a distinct need to provide additional support.”
That seems to me, at least, that there is not only a legitimate concern, but an actual problem.
This is compounded by recent incidents of hate and bias that only exemplify, for the black student population, the need for additional support. Based on this, they push for retention and recruitment policies that they hope will help to remedy the problem.
The pushback came from the expected quarters. One poster: “I don’t think we should be admitting students or hiring teachers and staff according to a race quota system.” They would add, “Have you looked at the list of requests? Are the things that they demand offered to all students?”
I think the more appropriate question is twofold. First, are the things they demand needed by the black students and, second, are they needed by all students?
That person continues, quoting from the report, “The drafting and implementation of an aggressive recruitment strategy plan by admissions to ensure the percentage of students among the Afrikan Diaspora at UC Davis is reflective of that of the population in California (currently 6%).”
They note, “UCD has 28% white students when the current CA consensus shows 38% white, should UCD then have to actively recruit more white students? UCD has 37% Asian students when CA consensus shows CA 14% Asian, should UCD stop Asian admissions?”
These are complicated questions. But I think the “demands” of the black students need to be evaluated separately from the questions about white and Asian enrollment. We should be asking whether the students have legitimate concerns about the underrepresentation of the black population and perhaps even more so about the low graduation rate of students once they are at UC Davis.
Is this low graduation rate due to student climate and the difficulties of being an extreme minority at an institution of higher learning? What can we do to improve their experience and increase the graduation rate?
To me this is not about a number, this is about whether there is a problem. The situation with black underrepresentation is very different from the issues of white and Asian enrollment.
But, instead of asking the question of whether there is a problem with African American students, the pushback is almost a variant of the All Lives Matter question. When protesters rallied in the face of police shootings of blacks, with the mantra Black Lives Matter, the pushback was that All Lives Matter.
The fact is all lives do matter, but stating that ignores the problems in the black community. It undermines the point made that in the legal system some lives appear to matter less than others. It ignores the inequity of the system.
And that’s what we have here. The black students are rising up because of specific problems that are occurring on the college campus. Those problems are not solved by the notion that all students should be offered all services, instead, universities need to figure out how to better recruit and retain African American students – because there is a problem there.
And if other problems are identified with other groups of students, then we need to figure those problems out and address them specific to their own situation.
Finally, there is the question that arises as to whether Davis is a very racist community. Honestly, I don’t think that’s even the proper question. If one incident occurs in Davis, and it’s a problem, we need to address it. One incident is too much.
There is a racial divide in America, and Davis is not immune to that. This is not the Jim Crow south, but it is also not the melting pot of diversity, and sometimes I think we are not conscious enough about the latter. I think I’m going to leave it at that for now.
—David M. Greenwald reporting