How Should Community Colleges Respond to Charleston?
June 21, 2015
Our hearts are broken. How can words possibly respond to the ongoing butchering of precious Black lives? The heartless and horrific terrorism visited upon our brothers and sisters at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist invoked the historical rhetoric of lynching and the global signifiers of European imperialism. Dylann Roof is part of a movement and culture that is an integral part of the fabric not just of America’s past but also its present. Roof’s ideology and stated justifications reflect a virulent mix of white entitlement and resentment, male sexual anxiety, and the willingness to use obscene violence in response to Obama’s presidency and the demands for dignity and justice put forth by the profound “#Black Lives Matter” grassroots social movement . . .
Institutional Racism: It is too easy to believe that racism is simply a matter of individual psychology, thereby allowing us to distance ourselves from the extreme and obvious racism of a figure like Roof while being blind to the operations and effects of structural institutional racism. The imbrication of Roof’s values and feelings into the social, political, economic, and cultural fabric of the United States is evidenced most directly by mass incarceration, the criminalization of Black youth, and pathological policing, but also by stark disparities in income, wealth, housing, employment, health, and educational access.
Rather than seeking comfort and absolution by regarding ourselves as utterly outside Roof’s racist universe, let us instead take seriously our own complicity in his violence by recognizing that his sense of entitlement, his anxieties and frustrations, and his sense of the diminished humanity of Black people are an essential part of American culture and its institutions.
Community College Mandate: What conversations and actions are necessary at Green River College in Auburn, which is where I teach, and at the other 33 community and technical colleges in Washington state, in order to respond meaningfully to Charleston? I pose the question in this way to draw attention to ourselves as an institution and to insist that we have unique obligations as a specific sector, namely, public higher education.
Higher education is the most important pathway to financial and professional advancement, which also makes it a crucial driver of economic development and community regeneration. For fifty-plus years in WA and elsewhere, community colleges, far more than public or private four-year universities, have offered open access to higher education, especially for those students who are the most marginalized and disadvantaged. The 34 WA community and technical colleges educate approximately 400,000 students a year!
Racial Justice and Racial Equity: What must WA community colleges do in order to acknowledge, reject, and move beyond institutional racism? We must be prepared to address the role that community colleges, and other educational institutions, play in reproducing the racist practices, structures, and ideologies that are integral to American society. As publicly funded institutions of higher education with a compelling social contract to serve our communities, community colleges can contribute to transforming society by joining the honorable fight for racial justice and racial equity. Let us begin by addressing these questions:
· As institutions of public higher education, what are the mechanisms of our accountability to Black families and communities?
· How can community colleges provide more equitable access and success for Black students?
· How much money and political will is the system willing to devote to substantial and widespread anti-racist training and equitable hiring practices and equitable professional advancement?
· How can community college faculty develop and enact anti-racist pedagogy and curriculum that gives students, the next generation of civic actors, the tools necessary to dismantle institutionalized white supremacy?
· Are community colleges willing to prioritize the hiring of faculty in all relevant disciplines with expertise in Black Studies and deep experience in Black communities? Relevant disciplines for such hiring include Criminal Justice, History, English, Sociology, Fine Arts, Political Science, Education, among others.
· Are we prepared to ask that SOME new faculty hires in all disciplines, including Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), demonstrate an understanding of the historical exclusions and current racial disparities within their fields, along with strategies and best practices for improved access, success, and equity?
· Are we ready to insist that SOME of our administrators and staff have demonstrated expertise in understanding and redressing the violence against Black people?
· How can community colleges honor and empower the voices of Black students in this work, especially through the network of Black Student Unions (BSUs)?
Governing for Racial Equity: How many Black people have to be gunned down before community colleges say: “We cannot continue business as usual. We cannot just begin classes on Monday as though nothing happened.” The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) provides oversight and support for the 34 community and technical colleges, including distributing tens of millions of dollars from the WA State Legislature to each college. Each college has a president, and each college has a five-member board of trustees appointed by the Governor’s office.
Where is the leadership at each of these levels—SBCTC, college presidents, boards of trustees—that acknowledges that responding to Charleston and racist police violence is also the responsibility of community colleges? Let us ask the leadership of WA’s community and technical colleges to adopt something like other public sectors have done, including the City of Seattle’s Race & Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) and King County’s Equity & Social Justice framework.
Certainly, let each of us examine our hearts, minds, and families for racial fears, privileges, anxieties, projections, hatreds, desires, antagonisms, and fantasies. This is not a small exercise and would undoubtedly be a worthy effort. But as institutions of public higher education, let us examine the distribution of power, authority, money, resources, and jobs, which is where institutional racism and institutional white supremacy must be diagnosed and addressed.
Let us not hold vigils at our colleges. Let us not be consumed by grief and sympathy. Let us act.
Vik Bahl, Ph.D., has taught in the English Division at Green River College in Auburn, WA since 1998. He is co-chair of the Green River Diversity & Equity Council (GDEC); and co-founder of Diversity & Equity in Hiring & Professional Development (DEHPD), a cross-college network to address the low numbers of faculty, administrators, and staff of color and other underrepresented groups in WA’s 34 community and technical colleges.