It is a documented fact that poverty coincides greatly with skin color. By the measure of the last Census, the percentage of white people living in poverty was 14%. The percentage of Black people living in poverty is 36% and for Latino people it is 35%. That is more than half times more than the percentage for white people. The reason for this is manifold and outside of the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say that it is due in large part to an inheritance of enslavement and genocide. The point I am trying to make here is that more people of color live in poverty than do their white counterparts.
Education is often cited as the way out of poverty. People with bachelor’s degrees earn more than those with high school diplomas. People with master’s degrees earn more than people with bachelor’s and so on. With higher education, people say, one can make a better life for one’s self, especially if one grew up in poverty. Education is the price of admission into Middle America and the American Dream. There is no better way to pull yourself up by your bootstraps than going to school.
If this is the case, why are most college campuses so white? Here at Northeastern, 28% of the student body are people of color that were born in the US. In other words, the student body is primarily white. If education is the key out of poverty, why aren’t college campuses flooded with people of color?
The racists among us would cite the inherent laziness, stupidity and criminal nature of people of color. And while most people wouldn’t cop to that in those words, I can’t tell you how many times people have used coded language to say just that. For example, implying that so-and-so wouldn’t have gotten in if it wasn’t for affirmative action or, worse, that affirmative action is racist against white people. I remember once, after a presentation, a white classmate told me later, with surprise in his voice, “You are so articulate!” As if being articulate was a trait reserved for white people. Or saying that so-and-so isn’t, like, “stereotypically” black because look at the way they dress and they are doing so well in college!
Or worst yet, “28% of the students are people of color? That’s so diverse!”
Yeah… I have to keep Advil in my bag at all times, just in case.
I would counter these subtle, or not-so-subtle, racists that the reason why college campuses are so white is not because people of color are lazy or stupid or criminal but rather because of the systemic injustices that our education system has. There is very little support for people of color, who live in predominantly poor urban neighborhoods with shoddily funded schools, to get a decent high school education. Let alone a good one. Not only that but brown children, especially brown male children, are routinely disciplined much more harshly then their white counterparts. They are constantly being told that they are lazy, stupid and criminal. They are already written off as failures before anyone even says go.
And then there is the School to Prison Pipeline, which siphons underperforming youth into the juvenile justice system.
And even if they go to a decent school, with supportive and affirming teachers, the violence that often permeates their lives (which is due to more structural injustice) often prevents them from applying themselves to their studies and doing well. When one is worried if one will survive the walk home, it’s kinda hard to care if you are gonna pass a math exam.
All in all, the deck is stacked against you if you are brown. There is little to no support to help you succeed if you are a person of color. And most white people can conveniently ignore this because it doesn’t affect them; so who cares, right?
College campuses, including Northeastern, are mostly white because there is little to no investment in getting brown people to college. Those in power are not interested in empowering the disempowered and so the support is not there.
The other reason why Northeastern is so white is because this school does not provide enough financial support for low-income students. People of color and low-income people might get in, but without scholarship and grants, they cannot hope to afford to come here. Since middle-upper class and upper class families are usually white, it makes sense why they would make up most of the student body. When money is spent to build and power some foolish
piece of engineering “artwork” and finance a million dollar home for the president, it’s clear to see where the financial priorities of the university lay. I’ll give you a hint: not with students of color.
At this point you might say to me, “None of this is news, Morgan. Why write about it now?”
I write this now because even though none of it is news, it all bares repeating. Here at Northeastern, on a mostly white campus, it is exceedingly easy to ignore and write off the issues that don’t directly affect some of us. But by ignoring these issues, we are only contributing to them. As Desmond Tutu, the South African activist, once said,
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
I write this critique to spark conversation and engage this student body to move away from its lethargic, apolitical nature. For far to long we have languished in this space of “neutrality”, of aligning with the status quo through inaction. For far to long we have failed to interrogate and challenge not
only Northeastern administration but also those greater systems of power that keep us oppressed. College campuses used to be the center of social change and gave so much power movements that worked for change; The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Queer Rights Movement, just to name a few. Students have been at the forefront of so many movements. But that no longer seems to be the case. That main concern of students today is not how can we make this world a better place but where the next pseudo-frat party is.
I write this critique, also, to tell my Black and Brown sisters and brothers that they are not alone. I know that, for myself, the sense of isolation that I feel when people who do not share my struggle surround me is very corrosive to my spirit. I get discouraged, apathetic and frustrated. So I write this to not only remind myself of the importance of the struggle but also to remind you, dear reader, that you are not alone.
One thing is certain, however: to remain ignorant in the face of these struggles is to be part of the problem.