Reminders of the systemic racism continuing to cast a shadow over our nation keep popping up everywhere. Millions of reality TV viewers recently watched the first Black star on “The Bachelor” explain his breakup with a white contestant he had chosen after it surfaced that she had attended a party with an antebellum theme that harkened back to a time when slavery was legal and violent racism was glorified.
Matt James explained the breakup saying that Rachael Kirkconnell did not understand “what it means to be a Black man in America.” Kirkconnell later issued an apology blaming her racism on ignorance, writing that she did not recognize how offensive her actions were at the time.
Another reminder comes right off the shelves of your local supermarket. It took a hundred years to take Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima off rice and pancake boxes. Has the slave-in-the-box mentality that produced Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima and made them acceptable for so long really changed?
These examples are what I call the unchallenged narratives: the unconscious bias that is built into almost every level of our societal consciousness.
Struggle for equity
I remember having “The Talk” with my parents. I was from Queens and had to take a bus and a subway to go to high school in Manhattan. My parents said, “You have to have your ID in your front pocket and your quarter to call us and always be respectful because we want you to come home.”
Some folks would be surprised to hear that my parents felt they needed to have “The Talk” with me. If it is not a part of your consciousness, you do not know that it is part of what Black families have to do to make sure their children are safe. If you have not walked in another’s shoes, it is easy to dismiss, or at the very least, not understand, what they are saying or experiencing.
Fresh out of law school, I got involved in the struggle for equality, fighting for tenants’ rights and desegregation. Decades later, these racial boundaries are still very much in evidence, including in the world of higher education. And they exist at every level, from incoming first-year students to the few of us who have risen to top leadership. Out of more than 1,000 community colleges nationwide, fewer than 7% are led by people of color. As in so many other professional pursuits, too many of us are still “the first.” That is why I helped start an association for Black college CEOs to see how we could create a path for others to follow.
As a society, we are comfortable making statements about diversity, equity and inclusion, but educational leaders need to challenge the outcomes produced by the systems that created these unchallenged narratives and take practical, accountable steps to make actual progress in dismantling racism.
We need to ensure that all our students have equal access to educational programs, career pathway training and job opportunities. We need to ensure that students from low-income homes, from first-generation college-going families, and those who often believe college to be an unattainable goal, have a level playing field to meet their educational objectives and have access to the employment opportunities they need to take steps to create a brighter future for themselves and their families. We need to nurture a sense of inclusion so that all students feel that they are valued members of campus life. Moreover, this equity and inclusion need to extend to our staff and faculty as well.
‘Steps Beyond Statements’
At Rockland Community College (RCC), we developed a plan called “Steps Beyond Statements” to put into action our commitment to living our values of social consciousness. We established a College Working Group to develop a comprehensive plan to track key performance indicators on equity and to conduct a Student Diversity Study to guide our actions going forward.
A Black Lives Matter panel discussion I moderated with RCC students and alumni generated dialogue and new ideas. We created an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which helped faculty and others in teaching and learning develop new mindsets and strategies for bringing these core principles into their classrooms.
Our Connections Counselor and Student Involvement teams created “RCC Speaks,” a space for the college community to share their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives on ways to make a difference related to systemic injustices on campus and in our communities.
Education must be on the front lines in the fight against injustice and racism. As college presidents, we must make real, tangible reforms with courage, conviction, compassion and confidence if we want to truly see institutional transformation. Community colleges have always been democracy’s colleges, offering a beacon of hope to those aspiring to better lives. We must fulfill this promise by committing to taking Steps Beyond Statements that forge a path toward a better, more equitable world.