Students of color talk about lack of diversity on campuses–and how to make change for the better

Atrician Lumumba Outside UC Campus
Atrician Lumumba stands outside The Univerisity Chicago's campus posing for a picture. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)

By Branden Hampton

Recent racial incidents on local college campuses have brought to light the dissatisfaction felt by black students on predominantly white campuses.

Just this week, Northwestern University made news when two students were charged with vandalism and hate crime for spray-painting racist, anti-Islamic and homophobic messages inside the Alice Millar Chapel.

In a statement, President Morton Schapiro called the acts “abhorrent” and “disgusting” and said the university is committed to a “safe, secure and welcoming” environment for all students.

But Malcolm Bowman, a sophomore at Northwestern, feels the administration “danced around” the issue by not explicitly describing the offensive graffiti and its anti-Islamic, anti-black message.

Bowman also said that a lot of the racial problems on campus are covert and the university should handle racial issues more directly.

“I think you need to call it what it is. That’s not the sort of thing that you dance around [or] sweep under the rug,” Bowman added.

The incident at Northwestern was preceded in February by another incident at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, when racist emails from the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity were leaked online and included racial slurs about black and Muslim students.

Atrician Lumumba, a sophomore at the University of Chicago and a member of the Organization of Black Students, said that the Organization of Black Students, Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine attempted to work directly with the administration regarding the racial incident.

“We had a lot of meetings with the administration. A lot of what we’re getting back from them is this argument of freedom of speech,” Lumumba said.

Lumumba alleges that the administration said that,  “there’s nothing that they can do about this hate speech and there’s nothing they’re going to do.” University of Chicago officials could not be reached for a comment.

“I feel there’s definitely a lack of respect, but I think it’s more rooted in the lack of understanding for the conditions of students of color and marginalized students on this campus,” Lumumba said.

Student Experiences

The problems faced by students of color at mostly-white colleges and universities gained national attention in 2015 at the University of Missouri. Students of color there protested racism and lack of diversity on campus, which led to the resignation of Missouri’s president. Here in Chicago, local college campuses held town hall meetings and students held protests to stand in solidarity with Missouri.

During a tense Northwestern town hall meeting in November 2015, first-year doctoral student Ashley Agbasoga recounted her experience of being racially profiled at a campus library, where a library worker told her “It looks like you don’t go here.”

Since the meeting, Agbasoga said that two library workers reached out to her to meet about the incident and apologized for what happened. Still, Agbasoga said that the university should have been holding more discussions about diversity before the Missouri protests.

“I half-appreciated Northwestern coming out after Mizzou instead of completely blowing it off,” Agbasoga said. “At the same time, why did it take that spark to have a dialogue on race, when this campus has had race problems since it was founded?”

Agbasoga mentioned other recent incidents in which she felt stereotyped on campus, but declined to give details.

Asked to describe her current experiences in two words, Agbasoga said, ”Fulfilling yet isolating, because I’m in anthropology where I get to read all day. I read about the African Diaspora and I am a part of the African Diaspora. I think that’s fulfilling for me, both through my academic work and also my personal life.” But she also noted the lack of professors of color in the department.

Ashley and Arbeena Board
Ashley Agbasoga and Arbeena Thapa work on an assignment in the anthropology department at Northwestern University. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)

Bowman recounted his unique experience of being stereotyped on as a former student athlete.

“I’ve told people my story and how basically my career came to an end because of recurring knee injuries,” Bowman said. “The [students] would say, ‘Oh man, that sucks because that’s what you came here for. Are you still happy?’ I’m always a little taken aback by that because I didn’t make a life decision based solely on football. The fact that I’m a Northwestern student and you’re assuming that is a little off-putting for me.”

Lumumba said he and other students have repeatedly had problems with University of Chicago campus police.

“I can name maybe five different instances where this has happened, [to me], going back to my first week on campus when I was coming home from a party at 1 a.m. and I was being followed the entire way home,” Lumumba said. “That has happened not only to me, it’s happened to plenty of students of color here.”

Echoing Agbasoga, Lumumba said that the University of Chicago should hire more teachers of color and have a more diverse curriculum.

“I had my first African-American professor this quarter and I’ve been here two years. It was just a really great experience. The class was called Intro to Black Chicago,” Lumumba said.

Atrician Lumumba UC Library
Atrician Lumumba looks outside a campus library window reflecting on the past at The University of Chicago. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)

More Community Dialogues

This year, Northwestern has implemented some new strategies to help promote diversity and inclusion.

Jabbar Bennett, associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Northwestern, said that the university has launched an ongoing series of four community dialogues to talk to students and address specific demands or grievances. Faculty moderate the dialogues. The first dialogue was held in February; the next is scheduled for March 30.

The efforts follow a list of demands received from students.

Below is the list of demands by Northwestern University students sent to university administrators.

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“In response to that list and student discussions with me and other administrators, the students said that they wanted to have monthly meetings to discuss progress made on these demands. They also wanted us to create a website, which talked about or showed progress that was made,” Bennett added.

The website is called Inclusive Northwestern and was launched in February 2016.

Bennett said that the first meeting was not advertised widely enough and the university is taking steps to do more outreach in advance of the meetings.

Moving Forward

In addition to a more diverse curriculum and faculty, students of color have other ideas for making campuses more welcoming.

“I think a ‘Black House’ is necessary,” said Lumumba. “A space that is dedicated to black students is most definitely necessary. ”

Arbeena Thapa, a doctoral student at Northwestern University, said that she would like to see a student-led group to help implement university policies.  Thapa, who attended the University of Texas at Austin, also believes class divisions play a role in the challenges she and other students face. “I’m coming from a public university and I think there is a larger presence of working-class people of color and students of color [there].”

In the future, Bennett said he wants “to see every member of our community feel acknowledged, respected and accepted for who they are, in every [aspect] of their identity. I want them to feel safe in this environment as well.”

A list of demands by University of Chicago Students following racist emails that were leaked from the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity in February 2016.

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Photo at top: Sophomore Atrician Lumumba stands outside the University Chicago’s campus on the South Side. (Branden Hampton/MEDILL)