Then and Now: Racism in College Today
The noose was first discovered at 4:15 p.m.
That means that in the middle of the day on Sept. 7, in front of the often bustling Nyumburu Cultural Center, someone managed to hang the three-foot length of rope without ever being seen. The center is the hub for minority activity at the University of Maryland, and the noose is a symbol for historic oppression of African-Americans.
And yet, after dozens of interviews were conducted and hours of videotape were examined, no suspects were identified.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was like someone was spitting in our face,” says James Crabbe, a senior at Maryland. “We haven’t really come that far, I guess, if people out there still want control over minorities.”
The rest of the University of Maryland community was equally appalled. Shawna Murray, a vice president of the black student union, called the act one of “terrorism.” The chair of the Women’s Studies Department, Dr. Bonnie Dill, told NPR she was “very disturbed, very upset,” adding that “there’s been fear, there’s been tension.” The weeks following the noose’s appearance were marked by displays of solidarity and unity, demonstration and strength.
For all the fear and activism wrought by the hate crime, however, no one to blame has yet materialized. Not even a suspect. The same is true at Columbia, where a noose was hung on the doorknob of Professor Madonna Constantine’s office a month after the Maryland incident. The hateful acts are indicative of what is becoming a national trend. DiversityInc keeps a “Noose Watch.” During an average year, there are 12-15 noose incidents. This year, the number is up to 61. Of those, 22 have occurred in school settings, including a horrific scene at Reed College in Oregon this October in which six stuffed scarecrows were found hanging from a grove of cherry blossom trees.
Fourteen of these cases have yet to be solved. Some of the nooses, such as those at Maryland and Columbia, were flaunted in open areas where any number of people could have witnessed the rope as its knot was tied. As is the case for the issue of racism itself, resolution has proven elusive. Now, two generations removed from the height of the civil rights’ struggle, racism still shows its face with regularity. The reasons why, however, do not.
When 13 parents led by Oliver Brown first challenged the racial segregation of the Topeka, Kansas school system in 1951, they looked to overturn 90 years of the “separate, but equal” statute in the United States. By 1954, when the case appeared before the Supreme Court, Martin Luther King had begun preaching equality in Alabama, and the Civil Rights Movement was fully underway.
The decision in Brown v. The Board of Education was meant to cure the racial ills of all of America’s education systems, from elementary to university. It was intended to serve as the temporal partition separating “now” from “then.”
But if 1954 was supposed to be a turning point, it has been a wide bend.
Andrew Grant-Thomas is the deputy director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. He says that an analysis of the developing racial climate on campuses is a matter of perspective.
“In absolute terms, we’ve come very far. The statistics for people of color, in attendance and graduation, have gone way up. That’s good news,” he says. “The discrepancy, on the other hand, between white and minority is still enormous. So, in relative terms, we have a long way to go.”
Considering that we live in a time that outlaws segregation and overt racism, those words are distressing. But it is the belief in a linear progression of racial inclusion that Sean Eversley-Bradwell, an assistant professor at Ithaca College, believes lies at the root of our misunderstanding of racism.
“We think that, by default, as time goes on ‘race relations’ get better,” he says. “I’ll hear people say things like, ‘Can you believe that would take place in 2007?’ As though, somehow, because it’s 2007, we would not experience what we experienced 50 years ago. There’s the belief that because time passes, things automatically get better without doing any of the work.”