On Being Black and Unwanted at Elite Universities
Last Sunday, the institution I attend, the University of Chicago, sent another sobering reminder to the University community that students and communities of color are not to be seriously valued, considered, or even meaningfully respected in their full dignity as human beings. On January 27th, the University of Chicago used brutal and unnecessary force to arrest 4 individuals during a protest that urged the university’s hospital (the richest hospital on the South Side) to open a trauma center to treat victims of gun violence, stabbings, car accidents, and other traumatic incidents. This movement started after a young man, Damian Turner, was shot roughly three blocks away from the University of Chicago’s hospital, but died during the 10-mile trip to another hospital which does have a trauma center. After much silence on the University’s part, it finally responds by wrestling down youth of color, more than a few of which are students of its own institution, and planting them to the ground.
In many respects, I should not be surprised.
The history of the university has etched itself into a space of permanent antagonism against the South Side community. From the historical utilization of racist tools such as restrictive covenants to keep Black residents out of the surrounding community, to currently maintaining what is rumored to be the world’s second largest private police force (behind the Vatican), the University of Chicago has done everything in its power to send a powerful message to the Black community that it continually harms. It has since tried to rectify its historical wounds by throwing money to parties more committed to engaging with the South Side community. But what are we to make of these efforts when they coincide with the continual occurrence of racial profiling incidents and police brutality directed against students color, and Black males in particular? You cannot attempt to Band-Aid certain wounds while ripping open others. Until the university intensely and intentionally addresses the systemic and social racisms that emanates from its campus, it will never fully erode its turbulent racial legacy.
As a Black male of color, I have to maintain the schizophrenic consciousness that I attend a university that will hurl me to the ground if I forget my place as a Black man at a predominately white institution. At this institution, and others similar to it, students of color have to walk with the constant awareness that they are walking aberrations. We are attempting to get educated at an institution that was not made for us, nor has any idea how to deal with us aside from dehumanization, patronization, and the willed denial of our social circumstances and realities. Some of the world’s top universities, which pride themselves on their intellectual inquiry and robust ways of thinking, exercise an immovable obtuseness when it comes to examining the role of race in their campus communities. The aforementioned incidents are not atypical, not accidents, nor are they an opportunity for facile meetings and conversations, they are emblematic of interweaving forces of racial oppression, and the inability of higher institutions to critically examine themselves to any meaningful degree.
I chose to attend what I felt, and still feel, however ambivalently, was the best place for my education. But as James Baldwin once said, “the paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” Students of color have to be walking paradoxes at “elite” universities. And the degrees conferred upon us become symbols not just of our academic attainment, but of our ability to survive and carve out our place in institutions that never envisioned us as a part of them. The University of Chicago needs to strengthen its commitment not only to its own students, but to the communities of color of which its students are reflections. If it does not know how to move forward, the least it could do, is stop the unassailable acts of injustice that keep pushing us back.
You can urge the university to not press charges against the arrested protesters by signing a petition here.