The Critical Space of Underrepresented Minority Students
by Buffie Longmire-Avital
In the fall of 2015 protests erupted on many of the Nation’s elite and flagship public universities. When I think about this tumultuous time on college campuses, I immediately remember the picture of two collegiate Black males from the University of Missouri with their fists raised in the air and the words “1839 WAS BUILT ON MY B(L)ACK” inscribed in white on their black t-shirts while they stoically stood in front of a crowd of peers. This picture and the series of others that preceded and followed signaled to me the breaking of the colorblind constructed and fortified dam that had framed much of the early initiatives on generating and sustaining diversity on college campuses throughout the US for the last 30 plus years. Suddenly, touting the numbers and percentages of historically underrepresented minority students (HURMS) was not enough. In this swift climate change, the framing of diversity initiatives being centered on just having bodies on campus became synonymous with a “let them eat cake” answer to the need for addressing historical systemic inequities regarding the polarizing racial experience on college campuses, particularly at selective and elite colleges and universities.
In a 2017 NY Times article, Ashkenas, Park, and Pearce documented and discussed the decline of Black and Hispanic students over the last 35 years at elite institutions. In fact, their shocking byline included the words that, “Black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago.” The facts are that despite an increase in the racial minority populations in the last 30 – 40 years, where for example Black emerging adults (ages 18 – 25) have come to represent 15% of college-age Americans, their presence at top-tier colleges and universities has held steady at six percent since 1980. When we look more specifically at research intensive institutions (i.e., R1s), the presence of Black undergraduates has shrunk from 1994 through 2013. At first glance a steady percentage of six may not seem problematic, but when considered in the context that college enrollment is increasing in accordance with the rapid population increase of college-aged Americans, this is problematic. Also embedded in the unpacking of this alarming plateau of growth is the realization that the racial minority population in the US is also steadily increasing. However, the rate of growth for student enrollment for racial minorities does not come close to the general pace of population growth for these same groups.
The persistent racial disparities in higher education point towards a need for a critical framework to understand and move the academy into a space that acknowledges and thrives off equity. In the seminal work of Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995), the scholars call for the application of a critical race theoretical framing for understanding educational disparities and structures that perpetually disadvantage HURMS. They posit that the oppressive social inequity embedded within the US fabric of higher educations is a result of the (1) centrality of race as a means of determining positionality; (2) the US societal reliance on property rights – which they argue should include intellectual property and further extended to also include curriculum; and (3) the intersection of both race and property. I interpret this last one to mean that we must consider who both the generators (e.g., authors, professors) and gate-keepers (e.g., editors, administration) are in creating educational spaces, as well as question how we assign value or respectability to scholarship, curriculum, and other educational practices. These three factors are key drivers behind the experience for HURMS in the higher educational realm.
For decades our HURMS (specifically those that are racial minorities) have been lured to academic institutions with a promise of inclusiveness and equality. However, can inclusiveness and equality ever truly be achieved if historical inequity is not acknowledged and actively attacked at multiple levels? I don’t believe it can, which is why I believe to understand the HURMS experience, we must engage a critical race theoretical (CRT) framework. This framework acknowledges what both Bourke (2016) and the Black students at Missouri knew: that although our US academies have literally and figuratively been built on the backs of racial minorities, they continue to center Whiteness as the default perspective and esteemed position of privilege while systematically (often unintentionally) “othering” the space occupied by persons of color.
How does the realization of historical inequity relate to the experience of HURMS in regard to high-impact practices? That is simple; it relates to the intersection of race and property, generated and maintained space. It is a movement away from the assumption that all students who opt to engage in high-impact practices while enrolled in college have tapped into the same well of knowledge or awareness and opportunity that is available to all. It is an acknowledgment that our forms of selection and recruitment and our rates of participation may be systematically denying, or at least not creating, space for all potential students. We must now begin the work of actively engaging in a conversation that critically analyzes the structures and systems that shape these practices all while centering the space of HURMS.
Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.