Confronting campus racism

Racism is again in the spotlight at the University of Texas, reports Lucian Villaseñor.

UT students march against racism on campus earlier this fallUT students march against racism on campus earlier this fall

IT'S THAT time of year again when college students pull all-nighters to finish research papers and cram for final exams. But at the University of Texas at Austin, the usual end-of-semester routine was upended by the racially charged comments of a campus professor.

Law professor Lino Graglia, apparently set off by a recent lawsuit accusing UT's affirmative action policy of "discrimination" against a white Texan, claimed that low academic performance among Blacks and Latinos is caused by being "raised by a single parent, usually female, uneducated and without a lot of money."

Graglia has a history of making racist statements. After a federal court ruled in 1997 against race-based admissions policies in Texas, Graglia said Blacks and Mexican-Americans "have a culture that seems not to encourage achievement" and that "failure is not looked upon with disgrace.''

Graglia's statements are worse than wrong--they end up providing a racist explanation, rooted in false ideas about "cultural inferiority," for unequal educational outcomes. In reality, those outcomes are plainly the consequence of the many social and material barriers Black and Brown people encounter in America.

During a recent BBC interview, Graglia expanded his recycling of racial stereotypes by latching on to the notion that racism is a thing of the past in a "post-racial" America. "Alright, so racial discrimination stopped, and what happened?" asked Graglia.

But the institutions and ideologies that uphold racial discrimination didn't disappear after the passage of civil rights legislation or the implementation of affirmative action. Indeed, racial discrimination persists--in the U.S. generally, and particularly on the 40-acre campus of the University of Texas.

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AT THE beginning of the semester, students rallied against a disturbing rash of incidents in which bleach-filled water balloons were thrown at students of color. Many of these hate crimes took place in West Campus, the location of many fraternity and sorority houses that are disproportionately home to affluent white students.

It wasn't until students organized a 100-person protest in the area that the Austin Police Department and UT officials began to take the issue seriously. Students chanted "No more violence, no more silence" and "Don't you hate, don't you fear, people of color are welcome here" while they marched in the streets.

As awareness was building around the bleach-bombing incidents, some fraternities and sororities added to the climate of prejudice by hosting several "ethnic theme parties." The Alpha Tau Omega fraternity canceled its "Fiestau" after students learned it would feature a mock border crossing.

According to one of the event organizers: "We're going to put a river through [the party] and have like a border crossing, you know, like you walk over the river...We're going to have a Mexican side and a Texas side, with Mexican-themed drinks and then Texas-themed drinks."

Such comments reveal a disturbing level of ignorance about the gravity of the issues involved. The U.S.-Mexico border teems with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, the regular buzz of unmanned aerial drones and racist vigilantes--all directed at poor people fleeing a bleak economic landscape created in large part by the 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It's estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 people have died trying to cross the border since NAFTA's passage.

Enter the "ethnically themed party" with its distillation of a devastating political and social process into the backdrop for an orgy of binge drinking, and it's easy to see why so many students would take offense. While some white students might find it amusing to dress up in sombreros and fake mustaches for the night, most everyone else finds it insulting that there is such a lack of empathy for the countless human tragedies bound up with border enforcement.

These are only some of the injustices that Black and Mexican-American students face on a day-to-day basis at the University of Texas, but what is happening here is connected to the attacks on communities of color across the nation.

The reality that lies behind Graglia's bigoted comments about Black and Latino single mothers is that women still make less on average than men, and the decline in the gap between men's and women's wages is not because women are earning more, but because real wages for all workers, but especially men, have been on a falling.

Graglia points to the consequences of a society that oppresses people of color and women, but he ignores the real cause of those consequences--a system of economic and racial inequality. We need reforms like affirmative action to challenge the long history of inequalities and redress grievances of the past.

In confronting racism, we must also challenge the institutions that don't hold Graglia accountable for his comments. His shallow explanations for racial inequality wouldn't pass muster in any ethnic studies class, so why is he allowed to perpetuate these ideas to students?

If nothing else, his comments should reignite the battle to save the ethnic and identity studies departments and centers, whose collective funding was cut by $1 million two years ago. There are no excuses for such austerity measures after the UT Regents--nine cronies appointed by Gov. Rick Perry who run the entire UT system--approved $100 million to remodel their already posh offices.

The time is now to reclaim UT for the students, faculty and workers who learn and labor in the institution. We can run this university and decide how we use our resources far better than the disconnected administrators, who now want to consolidate their power in a brand new building. A struggle for racial justice on campus is not only needed, but definitely worth fighting for.