African American students’ educational experiences have consistently been tied to issues of social justice; they have organized and advocated for African American studies departments, multicultural curricula, increased minority faculty hiring, and other initiatives that promote equitable access for African American students. This fight has continued into the era of Black Lives Matter. African American college students report more negative views of their campus racial climate than other racial and ethnic groups.  Within the last few years, African American college students have protested for and demanded more inclusive and supportive racial climates at their schools. From the University of Missouri to Yale, colleges across the country have been faced with the question of how to improve their campus racial climate, but it is important to consider the broader context in which African American students find themselves as it relates to their racial climates.

Cultural racism and institutional racism interact to shape African American college students’ unique experiences. Cultural racism helps to explain how different racial and ethnic groups have differing experiences. Cultural racism deems a group’s culture inferior, however, certain cultural aspects are not as relevant to different cultural groups.  Given that culture manifests in different ways for these different groups, the racism they face manifests differently as well.  Similarly, Jones discusses the black exceptionalism thesis which posits African Americans have a unique experience due to factors such as slavery, legally enforced racial segregation and discrimination, rigid and caste-like boundaries, and persistent lower-class status relative to White Americans and other immigrant groups.  For African American college students, this helps explain their tumultuous relationship with their institutions.  History possesses many accounts of universities enacting policies and practices with the explicit role of perpetuating African Americans’ second-class status through reproducing social inequalities already detrimental to African Americans.

Jones’ model of institutional racism proposes that institutional racism is reproduced within educational institutions.  Social reproduction occurs because education in capitalist societies perpetually reproduces structures of social inequality, both between and within schools. Culture manifests through institutions and creates values.  Institutions then socialize individuals to take on these values to be competent within the institution.  The longstanding cultural stereotype of African Americans’ intellectual inferiority and their laziness, implies both lack of ability and lack of effort to improve.  This cultural belief informs individuals’ negative judgments of African American students, their history, and culture; this informs the value institutions (via individuals in power) place on supporting, recruiting, and retaining African American students and other students of color. African American students may not see their lived experiences or cultural backgrounds reflected in any curricula.  Negative stereotypes help to justify the negative outcomes of African American students and African American students are blamed for these outcomes rather than any social inequities. 

At the individual level, students learn what is explicitly communicated and what is implicitly communicated from the institution and others within it. Implicit stereotypes link negative attributes to African American students, impacting how members of other racial and ethnic groups behave toward them.  The racial prejudice that individuals express toward African Americans is an individual level response to the racialized context of the university and of the broader culture.  Additionally, these stereotypes have a negative effect, leading students to feel emotions such as anger, sadness, pressure, and anxiety.  These negative stereotypes may cause them psychological harm and stifle their academic achievement.  An example of this is stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs when African Americans’ academic performance suffers due to race becoming relevant and a task being presented as a measure of ability. African Americans do not have to endorse or believe the negative stereotypes for their performance to suffer.

These experiences indicate how educational institutions reproduce the inequities that already negatively impact African Americans, making this an issue of social justice. When I say social justice, I mean whether there is a fair distribution of resources and fair representation in decision-making processes. For African American students, do they have a fair share of the available resources on campus? Are they fairly represented in decision-making?

Universities should be responsive to the needs of African American students and willing to make changes to meet those needs. Too often, such needs are not met and the environment does not promote positive development for African American students. Such institutional level factors are important as they are related to social justice. These factors play a large role in the allocation of resources, opportunities, and power for African Americans on a college campus. Cultural racism and institutional racism are often at the heart of these structures of resources, opportunities, and power; therefore, it is appropriate to properly assess these experiences with the goal of improving them.

Last year, I interviewed groups of African American college students to ask them what colleges and universities can do to improve the environment for African American students. Three main themes came up across the interviews:

  • Institution: This theme refers to the characteristics, practices, and policies within the structure of the university that promote racial/ethnic diversity, multiculturalism, and the support of African American students at multiple levels of the institution. They referred to diversity both as a large African American student population and as a student body of multiple racial and ethnic groups. Students also referred to programs and offices that provide resources and support to African American students. One student stated she wished her university would take a more proactive stance in the current political climate.

But it would be nice to see Georgia State to make a stance on what's going on racially, like even if you voted for Donald Trump and can see where he's coming from, the way African Americans are being treated in this day and age is not correct. We're being treated like animals in these situations or people are these violent beings that don't like peace. I would like to see Georgia State make a stance on these, like hold a rally we could to or protest peacefully or allow peaceful protest. I would just like to see them make a stance and say "hey this is not ok and if you also feel that this isn't ok, you can come and support this.

  • Attitudes: This theme encompassed beliefs that individuals hold about African American students and the impact of those attitudes on African American students.  The subtheme of negative stereotypes that individuals hold about African American students was predominant.  One stereotype that students repeatedly mentioned was their intellectual inferiority.  One student remarked how people are surprised when an African American student shows their intellect.

I don't even know. I guess just not look at us like we're dumb. It just annoys me. In some classes, if I say something that has good vocabulary or whatever they'll be like "oh my god, how do you know those words?" Why wouldn't I know them? I just feel like they have just low expectations just for black individuals in general. Whenever we show we have even one shred of intelligence it's like "oh my god look! There's one of them that actually knows how to think and use their words." That goes back to the fact that I think they view us as animals. I don't see me looking at another human being and being like "how do you know all those words? How do you articulate so well?" I don't understand it.

Students additionally discussed feeling as though they had to work harder in response to negative attitudes and stereotypes held about African American students.  Some stated that African American students could pay a high price for not excelling; one student mentioned that African American students could not afford to be mediocre.

I feel like as a black student, we can't be mediocre. Like you either … Like you have to go above and beyond. You have to do everything your teacher says. You have to be on top of everything and if you're not, you get written off and I, I've seen that a lot from like my friends, to me. That I've even … I don't even know where I got this thing, where I have to do everything.

  • Interracial interactions.  This theme consists of day to day interactions that African American students have with students of other races and ethnicities and that students of all races and ethnicities have across racial lines.  Some students mentioned the negative impact recent societal issues have on the campus environment and racial tensions that are increasing.  Students also discussed witnessing and experiencing instances of overt or explicit racism.  One student described how she was denied service at an on-campus restaurant.

Um, well one time I was in Moe's and this lady she tried to tell us that like it was closed, but then this white girl walked by and she was trying to get in and she said it was open for her so, yeah.

Another student described an instance in which two White students refused to eat food cooked by an African American.

I went to Georgia Gwinnett my first two years and then I transferred here last semester and so when I was at GGC, I was at line in Panda Express and then there was these two white guys behind me and we had a Black cook and a White cook and I guess they switched shifts and so the Black cook was cooking now and so the two White dudes behind me were like "oh I'm not eating here since that Black dude's cooking" and they left.

Students also discussed how comfortable individuals feel interacting with people outside of their own racial or ethnic group.

I don't feel like it happens like they're thinking about it, but I feel like, just kids are drawn to people of their kind. I try not to be like that, I have friends of all races. There are some kids that feel more comfortable being around other white kids, but to each their own, but that also falls in to why do they feel so scared around Black. That comes from society and like the media, like perpetuating that we're such violent creatures, just doesn't make sense. So yes to an extent, but they're not making a conscious decision to be segregated.

These broads themes both highlight areas of concern for African American students and areas for intervention and improvement. From the moment the first African American student integrated a formerly segregated school, African Americans have endured indignities and brutality at these institutions of higher learning. These incidents continue to occur, sometimes with fatal outcomesAt their most hostile, negative racial climates could spell death for someone who is at the wrong place at the wrong time. The current political climate has left many individuals from marginalized backgrounds, (including African Americans, feeling unsafe and unwelcome in their environment; unsurprisingly, this has spilled over into the university setting.  African American professors are under attack for stating their views, students are harassed and attacked, and many colleges fail to adequately address these issues. Based on these interviews, here are some recommendations.

  1. Have a structure in place that supports the creation of African American student organizations
  2. Create offices, programs, and initiatives that support African American students
  3. Host events that promote and celebrate African American culture (and diversity broadly)
  4. Host events that promote cross-cultural interaction and understanding
  5. Promote and maintain networks that connect African American students and professors
  6. Recognize the accomplishments of African Americans on campus
  7. Offer courses that focus on African American culture and history

Colleges and universities should provide support for African American students at an institutional level through resources such as student organizations, programs, and curricula.  As highlighted by group interviews, this institutional support is vital for African American students.  It is most important that we include the voices and experiences of African American students because these hostile environments threaten their academic, psychological, social, and physical well-being.