Racism rears its head at UCB

November 21, 2012

Gaston Lau reports on activism against racism and budget cuts at UC Berkeley.

RECENT EVENTS show that racism is still very much alive at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. But the campus community, with its rich history of progressive resistance, is showing a desire to fight back.

On Halloween, fraternity Theta Delta Chi hung a zombie from its house's third-floor window, invoking the history of lynchings of Black men.

Whether intended or not, many believe the hanging had racist implications. The incident happened directly across the street from Christian Hall, part of the larger Unit 1 dormitory complex, where many first-year students reside. The building houses the African American Theme Program, which provides resources and support for Black students, who now only make up 3 percent of the student population at UC Berkeley.

Responses via Facebook to the lynching of the dummy were varied. But as one student pointed out, "If your ancestors (from not too long ago) had been the victims of lynching, you'd [...] automatically make that connection, even if the damn Zombie was green."

A hate crime hanging from the Theta Delta Chi house at UC Berkeley
A hate crime hanging from the Theta Delta Chi house at UC Berkeley

The shame is in not recognizing the importance of the racial implications. As chair of the Black Student Union Erma Sinclair told the Daily Californian, "It does not matter if the body that was hung was black, blue, green or yellow. The fact of the matter is the action itself has a direct connotation to a period in American history. It is not a Black-and-white issue--it's an issue of ignorance. Individuals need to think before they act."

The student of color community was infuriated, and an emergency town hall meeting was called. About 100 people, overwhelmingly undergraduates of color, packed the Senate chambers of the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) on October 31.

One first-year African American student shared her daily experience of being on campus. Her classmates, she said, ask her, "How did someone like you get in here?" Another first-year African American student recounted having alcohol thrown on her as she walked on fraternity row. Members of the Black Student Union and other students of color communities spoke out courageously and emphasized multicultural solidarity.

After two hours, the ASUC Senate passed SB142--"A Bill Recognizing the History and Presence of Lynching and Anti-Black Sentiment in the United States of America, State of California, and UC Berkeley"--and agreed that "cultural and racial sensitivity training" was needed for the whole campus.

Still, there was mixed sentiment in the room, as one ASUC senator said in his concluding statements that "racism is a silencing act, but addressing racism is also a silencing act," implying that confronting racism can be exclusionary and divisive. However, activists were rightly there to silence the racists.

THIS IS not the only example of racism on campus in recent weeks. Currently, the students of color community at UC Berkeley is confronting a proposed consolidation of the Multicultural Student Development (MSD) centers, student services that offer material support for those who need it the most.

Gender equity resources are also under attack, as the administration's ultimate aim is to have just one "diversity center" catering to women, LGBT students and students of color. Administrators have chosen to attack MSD spaces first, assuming that the undergrad population will not rally to their defense.

Fliers have been put up around campus to draw attention to the fact that the administration is committed to "streamlining" and is willing, in their own words, to "sacrifice equity for efficiency."

Fortunately, activists are vowing to fight--and there are recent examples of anti-racist organizing at UC Berkeley that we can draw on. In September 2011, some 500 students of color led a silent counter-demonstration to a racist bake sale hosted by the College Republicans, one of the largest organized student groups on campus.

The bake sale charged different prices depending on the buyer, starting with $2 for white students and lowering the prices for students of color. The pro-affirmative action opponents of the racist bake sale were advocating for SB185, a bill that would allow the state to consider race, ethnicity and gender as part of a number of different criteria that would be used for admission decisions.

Incidents such as the "zombie lynching" and the racist bake sale demonstrate exactly why UC Berkeley needs to defend the MSD centers, which offer safe spaces for students of color. The attack on MSD also can be seen in the context of "Operation Excellence," the administration's answer to the budget cuts that will implement a systematic organizational restructuring of the university.

As the UC Berkeley Faculty Association points out, the administration contracted global consultant Bain & Co. to provide a report on how best to cut costs. The report recommends "reallocating space, consolidating student services and consolidating procurement."

In order to take on the administration's long-term plan, a bottom-up movement needs to emerge. The town hall and subsequent victory in the ASUC Senate Chambers shows in practice that such actions can create unity and solidarity between students of color and the larger campus community.

The struggles on campuses should have anti-racist struggles at the center. The focus of anti-racist organizing shouldn't be seen as a secondary issue, or as the privileging of one form of oppression over another. Rather, we should understand the historical implications of racism in U.S. society.

The student movement can only be as strong as its weakest link and by prioritizing the demands of the most oppressed, it raises the greatest possibility of a united, multiracial struggle that cannot be broken by racism.

We can look to other parts of the Bay Area for other examples of anti-racist organizing. Formations such as the Justice 4 Alan Blueford coalition, which is taking on issues of institutionalized racism and police terrorism, and Students Save CCSF, which is trying to prevent the consolidation of their Diversity Studies program, are proving that people of color are ready to fight against oppression on campus and beyond.

Zack Aslanian-Williams, Jessica Hansen-Weaver, Jun Yi Lian and Alexander Schmaus contributed to this article.

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