I grew up in Xenia, Ohio, eight miles from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. From the age of about 5 I realized that I was living in the wrong town. I should have been raised in Yellow Springs. Visiting the town–my parents had several friends who lived there–I was aware very early on that these were my peeps. The village of Yellow Springs–so named for a nearby spring that looks like quite a few people have already taken a leak in it, was bohemian, intellectual, unashamedly and unabashedly liberal, counterculture, innovative, spontaneous and, above all else, totally dedicated to the ideas of social justice. Because of its culture it was home to many bi-racial couples, not to mention same sex couples. I remember riding through the village in the 1960s and seeing women walk around without bras. I imagine there were quite a few car wrecks caused by the conservative men of Xenia driving through Yellow Springs and ogling the co-eds from Antioch with their girls untethered. Yellow Springs enjoyed a very scurrilous reputation in Xenia, as did Antioch college. Terms like communist, heathen, leftist, and later hippie were thrown around freely. But, the origins of that contempt were based in fear. Fear that the people of Yellow Springs were generally smarter, hipper and more socially evolved than Xenians. At the time Antioch students were primarily from the Northeast,white and wealthy. When I was growing up there were two liberal white colleges in Ohio, Oberlin and Antioch. Oberlin, like Antioch, has a long history of social justice advocacy, but Oberlin did not have the edge that Antioch did, taking more of a scholarly, persuasive approach rather than the physical as well as intellectual activism of the Yellow Springs institution.
As I got older and began to appreciate my Antiochian neighbors more and more, I found myself disappointed in the relatively lukewarm social activism of Central State University and Wilberforce University students. I would have presumed, at least in the area of black civil rights, that the students at these two HBCUs would be ready and willing to lead the charge. Instead they seemed timid, uncertain and apathetic by comparison. When the Antioch students became aware that a barber in downtown YS refused to cut black folks’ hair, they closed his barber shop down, drove him out of business. Not many CSU or WU students joined in the protests that eventually led to him closing his doors. The black students did slightly better when it was exposed that Geyer’s Restaurant in Xenia would not serve black people, although they employed black cooks–go figure, but it was still the Antioch students who began the protests and led the charge.
So, my standard of what social justice on a campus should look like was forged in Yellow Springs, not Wilberforce. It is so ironic that today Antioch is struggling to keep its doors open, the victim of a scam perpetrated by white colleges and universities almost everywhere that they too are strong advocates for social justice! You do not have to go to a small liberal arts college in southwest Ohio, or out to Berkeley they advertise. We are all down with the cause, you can pursue social justice, change the world and stand up for what is right right here at Vanilla U! If you believe that I can make you a good deal on a bridge in New York, bring your checkbook.
The modern predominantly white campuses I am familiar with–and that means quite a few, but surely not all–have about as much true commitment to social justice as I do to the Tea Party. Oh, they are great at talking about it. Virtually every president, provost and dean at predominantly white campuses talks a good game about social justice. Some of them probably even think they mean it, but most of them do not even have a grasp of what social justice means. If they did they would be horrified at some of the things that happen on their campuses and they would be more vigilant in investigating what happens that is insensitive, intolerant and downright wrong and insuring that steps are taken to ameliorate the conditions that allowed it to happen in the first place.
A quick summary of hate speech incidents on college campuses yields over a thousand complaints of hate speech/incidents on campuses last year, and those are only the ones that got out, escaped from the forces that work very hard to keep them quiet, unnoticed and unpublicized. These incidents, coupled with the miserable graduation rates of certain minorities on campuses, and the continuing the difficulties some women, white and minority, encounter in certain departments or majors, gives a lie to the idea that social justice is encouraged, let alone practiced, by most colleges. If college campuses were serious about social justice they would have people in power who are change agents,in the positions charged with monitoring and programming for social justice not bureaucratic toadies . But, being a strong advocate for anything in higher education, unless it is something that the majority culture values, is a sure way to become marginalized at best.
I attended a meeting recently on economic development on a college campus recently. The county in question is poor, heavily minority and dysfunctional when it comes to race relations. It has three school districts in the county, two all black, one almost all white. Guess which one is doing the best? The team from a university that was discussing the situation reported that the town they had spent most of their time in was 75% black. Yet, when they met with town leaders the group was all white. The team went on to say that the black leaders in town did not seem to want to meet with them and were reluctant to engage with the team. I, of course, raised my hand and asked what the racial make-up of the university team was. After all they had already described the town as predominantly black and the race relations in the place as dreadful. The answer was that there were no black people on the team that visited the town to “help/” What would make them think that black people who had lived mostly in poverty and at odds with their white neighbors would trust a white team of “experts” were actually coming to help them or even that they could be trusted? If people from our universities do not understand that doing research and/or outreach in communities of color requires that you have some people who look like them on the team then I despair of the state of diversity education and understanding on our white campuses.
Social justice may be alive and well on some campuses, but on most American campuses I am afraid it is what my down-east neighbors would call low sick!