Silence is complicit, and it is not often an agent for change. Fortunately, the past few weeks have placed a heavy emphasis on listening, learning and speaking out against racism.
Academic institutions are not exempt from the growing pressure in American society to acknowledge the pervasive, devastating reach of racism. Schools and colleges across the nation have been issuing statements outlining their stance against racism and their willingness to combat it.
However, the University of Florida did more than release a statement; the University of Florida’s president, Kent Fuchs, announced a comprehensive plan to initiate an ongoing battle against racism on campus and within the Gainesville community.
The plan addresses many areas where racism can manifest itself and reveals a conscious effort to educate, research and behave in a manner that will curb racial biases and injustices.
Some important pillars of the plan include a promise to remove any monuments or naming that celebrates the Confederacy or its leaders, banning the racially tainted “Gator Bait” chant, ending reliance on prison labor, and an effort to diversify the campus’ students and staff.
UF hopes to empower the Black community in Gainesville by supporting Black-owned businesses and creating programs that will enhance Gainesville’s educational and economic opportunities. The University will also work with the Gainesville Police Department to review use of force policies.
UF also promised its students the opportunity to educate themselves on the Black experience and inequality through research grants, guest speakers, Town Halls, community service, and the revision of some areas of curriculum.
The intense care taken in creating such a plan is absolutely necessary in a country where racial injustice has prevailed for 400 years.
An important part of fighting racism is education. Whether it comes from books, news articles, discussions with others, or documentaries, understanding the Black experience in America is a major part of reforming it.
So, if educating ourselves on racism and injustice is so important, why is more emphasis not placed upon teaching it in schools?
It is in fact detrimental to our society to raise children without acknowledging the realities of racism and only addressing it once unconscious biases have already formed. The infamous findings of the “doll test” conducted in the 1940s demonstrated that children ages 3-7, whether they were Black or white, associated more positive words with white dolls and more negative words with Black dolls.
Racial bias manifests itself at an early age; children are extremely observant, and respond to behavior they notice in their surroundings. One study presented shocking findings that just 5.6% of TV characters are Black and 1.4% are Latinx. See also: the stereotypes that often accompany these few diverse characters.
Further oppression of racial minorities often occurs even within school walls. For example, a Latina high school student in Santa Barbara named Alejandra was the only Latinx student enrolled in college-level courses in her school. Despite experiencing tremendous success in these rigorous classes, her guidance counselor discouraged her from “pursuing her dream to attend a four-year university.”
Though the guidance counselor undoubtedly had Alejandra’s best interest in mind, this expectation that Alejandra could only be successful in a community college despite her stellar academic performance was hurtful. She is now studying at Santa Barbara Community College and still recalls that this experience with her guidance counselor “filled her with self-doubt.”
The impressionability of adolescents combined with frequent racial biases within schools necessitates an academic system that teaches about the trials, tribulations, successes, and excellence within the lives of Black people and other people of color. Teachers and staff should be repeatedly trained and reminded of their subtle, yet hurtful treatment of Black students.
Addressing this issue in academic institutions is crucial because it allows individuals to be taught from a young age about an issue that plagues society. Doing so gives them more time to understand, witness and recognize its manifestations.
UF’s steps toward overcoming racism within the Gainesville community is an example that should be followed by academic institutions at every level. Schools and universities are supposed to be safe environments that instill positive morals to promote positive change. As educational institutions, it is their duty to educate society on racial injustice, bias and inequality.
Century Tower at the University of Florida. (Unmodified photo by Kate Haskell used under a Creative Commons license. https://bit.ly/31gftDc)