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Universities coming to terms (or not) with their racist histories

Universities across the country, and especially in the South, are coming to terms with their histories of racism and relationship to slavery, a reckoning that is highlighted in recent Chronicle of Higher Education series.

While some universities have buildings on campus that were built with the labor of enslaved peoples, such as the University of Mississippi, others relied on the trade of enslaved peoples to keep doors open, as was the case at Georgetown University. As both historians and the ancestors of enslaved peoples force universities to take a hard look inward, new questions regarding the universities’ responsibilities have begun to arise.

Consider Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), a designation for colleges and universities that opened before 1964 to serve African-American communities when white institutions refused them access. Today, many of the white institutions that in the past refused access to Black students (de jure or de facto) now see the value of diversity. And that, in turn, is having an impact on enrollment at HBCUs. Author Marc Perry notes in the article “one legacy of desegregation is that Tougaloo (an HBCU in Mississippi)—with an endowment of $13 million—struggles to compete for students against wealthier, predominantly white universities that are now keen to diversify.”

In the CSU, while campuses are more recent and weren’t built with the labor of enslaved peoples, there are still historically racist undertones that influenced certain aspects of the academy, including mascots and monuments. For example, Long Beach State is retiring its controversial Prospector Pete statue. The 1967 statue of the gold miner glorifies the Gold Rush, and ignores the genocide of indigenous people during that era.

CFA called out Long Beach State, along with San Diego State and Cal State East Bay, for their racialized mascots in a resolution passed by the CFA Assembly in April 2018. We condemn San Diego State’s usage of the moniker “The Aztecs” and its portrayal of “an Aztec as its mascot as well as usage of spears or weapons that connote violence and barbaric representations of Indigenous cultures,” the resolution states. CFA also condemns the current East Bay moniker The Pioneers and the mascot “Pioneer Pete” as it white-washes a violent history of Indigenous genocide in California. Click here to read the resolution.

Click here to read the series in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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