Recent protests by African American students on college campuses may have observers taking sides. But the young people’s actions challenge us to acknowledge one important component of our nation’s racial divide, relevant even for students born and raised generations after the Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s.

Ideally, universities should be places of free and open inquiry and learning, not places of racist and sexist hazing and exclusion.  The presence of racism in the Ivory Tower reflects the broader chasm rooted in the residential segregation that has caused many African Americans and most Whites to inhabit two nations, separate and unequal. 



The current problem is real.  On a website devoted to publicizing the demands raised by protesters on more than 70 campuses in the United States and Canada, students have called for an increase in the hiring of faculty and staff of color and Black student enrollments, classes on racial and cultural diversity, funding for cultural centers and increased efforts to track race-related offenses.

Far more frequent are the more subtle forms of prejudice Black students have described in interactions with fellow students and instructors.  The cumulative effect of such so-called “microaggressions,” a result of our collective inability to discuss race intelligently, is to make their targets feel unwelcome at their institutions and alienated from many of their fellow students. 

But strained race relations on college campuses are nothing new.  Such unrest has been going on since students of color aspired to higher education.  Many incidents at northern universities as often as southern campuses, with their heritage of state-supported racial segregation, made national headlines.

That’s because the root of the problem crosses regional boundaries and has persisted. The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has written of the deep and widespread racial segregation, “especially of Blacks from Whites,” caused by such public policies as zoning, housing and lending discrimination, White flight, and other forms of White resistance to fair-housing movements during the civil-rights era.  The resulting geographical segregation of African Americans deprives many of job opportunities, commercial and professional services, decent schools and law enforcement, resulting in concentrated poverty, urban blight, environmental pollution and crime.

Decades of state-supported housing segregation go far in explaining the immense wealth gap between Whites and Black Americans.   Another downside is segregation’s impact on the personality of many Whites caused by the stories they tell themselves to explain the social disadvantages endured by many African Americans.   Many White Americans, especially those facing demotion from the middle class by stagnant wages and a changing economy, form demeaning stereotypes of African Americans’ supposed defects in character, ability or culture, instead of viewing African-American disadvantage as structural, policy-driven, and generations in the making.

A self-perpetuating loop of systemic discrimination and anti-Black prejudice ensues, reinforcing isolation between Blacks and Whites.  All too often, many young Whites grow up in neighborhoods, churches, and schools in which they seldom, if ever, personally encounter African Americans as social equals or in positions of decision-making authority.

With our cities more segregated now than at the time of the civil-rights movement, many Whites have bought into racist myths, reinforced by conservative media and politicians.  When they arrive on college campuses that are more racially diverse than their neighborhoods, they either overtly express their aversion to Black people, stumble naively into insensitive encounters, or shun interactions of any sort with Black students.

College campuses, meant to be cosmopolitan spaces of social and racial integration, now help reinforce self-segregation.  A recent study points out that young Whites lead all groups in associating only with people like themselves.   White American social networks were found to be 91 percent white, and fully 75 percent of whites have entirely white social networks.

It’s true that a glance at the group photos accompanying the list of demands by activists on many campuses shows that a good number of white students are involved in the protests, some of which are led by multiracial coalitions.  A similar effort by Whites to cross racial boundaries can be seen in the many local demonstrations against police violence led by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

That White students are joining together with African Americans and other students of color to unmask and defy the structures of segregation, mistrust, and prejudice should inspire university administrations to reinvigorate higher education’s mission to encourage inclusion and democratic dialogue across racial and social divides. It proves that while overcoming attitudes hardened by stereotypes is possible, it requires hard work, commitment and support at every level.

Kevin K. Gaines is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Africana Studies and History at Cornell University and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.



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