Institutional Racism at our Universities: What sustains it and how do we overcome it

File photo: David Ritchie/ANA

At the height of UCT DVC Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng saga, where two UCT alumni’s wrote degrading and disrespectful emails to over 40 other academics questioning her qualifications, she quotes one email; “Then, he says, there was a time when accession to academic or leadership positions in a first class university meant that someone has achieved intellectually and they are also honest, and they have gravitas, and this repeated twittering is actually a problem. This DVC is self-absorbed and narcissistic and can only be [compared to] Donald Trump,”. Then another responded, “She has a PhD in education of mathematics – it might justify investigating as she is such an embarrassment.” (M&G 4 October) 

Vice Chancellor Max Price, defining Institutional Racism more simply, based on indifference to black culture and black beliefs said, ‘Institutional Racism seeks to say: the onus is on you – the newcomer – to change and adapt to the entrenched culture of our institution’. It was therefore evident to these academics that Professor Phakeng, as with black people in general, who have always endured an indifference to their culture, behavior and needs, by the dominant white culture, was now upsetting the core with her refusal to be dominated by the historical white male culture, had become a candidate for harassment and humiliation. 

Dr Max Price, who lambasted the senders and recipients of such emails had on a different occasion, had his own reawakening on white cultural capital and Institutional racism around the #RhodesMustFall period. 

Max said, ”It seems to me that UCT has developed over two centuries a culture that reflects the values, aesthetics and norms of white English-speaking South Africa. This culture is so entrenched and normalised that those of us who are part of it see it as the natural way of the world. Over the past two years, it has become clearer to me how this cultural blindness on the part of the entrenched group can be hurtful to others. I am indebted to the many students who have enabled me to glimpse the dynamics of institutional racism”. (News24 July 2017) 

After 23 years of democracy in South Africa, there is every sign that violent racism lives only in the occasional incidences in an otherwise peaceful coexistence of blacks and whites under Mandela’s rainbow nation. There are however no signs that Institutional racism has ever subsided or if it ever will, especially in institutions of higher learning. How do we explain the endurance of racism at our Institutions of higher learning? 

W. Carson Byrd, an assistant professor of pan-African studies at the University of Louisville, paints a bleak picture about Institutional Racism at American universities in his new book, Poison in the Ivy: Race Relations and the Reproduction of Inequality on Elite College Campuses. 

Byrd takes a much more intricate elaboration on how Institutional Racism is being sustained, mostly by the very blacks who are its victims. Byrd discusses how college diversity programs can result in students over-attributing success to factors like merit and hard work, while ignoring systemic or institutional problems. (Interview with W. Carson Byrd by Nick Roll’s Inside Highered)

This is the first thing Institutions like UCT do to weaken black resolve of those who end up within its doors. Their high point system for entry, makes the black person who gets admitted (among many of his fellow black peers) to feel that it could only be because of merit that he had been chosen, creating the ‘better black syndrome’.  The fact that these institutions like UCT were legally forced to open its doors to blacks, particularly the poor and rural is always blind to these students who many are in fact top students of their villages.

These students therefore enter UCT or Wits with no desire to change these institutions but to prove their own merit worth.

Byrd finds that mingling in elite social worlds, even diverse ones, can result in students downplaying the consideration of systemic and structural racism. Instead, being among “the best and the brightest,” or at least being under the impression that is the case, might result in students over-attributing things like merit or hard work for people’s success and failure, to the point where institutional racism is pushed under the rug. 

The control of how many black go through in specialized programmes has always been a feature of these institutions. The brightest of students, some who end up committing suicide, have never been awake to the fact that when these institutions are not ready to let them through, however brilliant their work output, if the black quarter for who should go through according to white males has been reached, they will never make it. 

Byrd finds that when we step back to examine the position of students within higher education, it becomes more of a question of how does one connect individual efforts to racial inequality rather than ask if they support an explicit view.

This ‘hyper individualism’ is how the belief in meritocracy and the importance of individual efforts becomes immersed not only in ideological beliefs about racial inequality, but in students’ identities as well, Byrd says.

So you have institutions that hoodwink students on individual merit instead of government interventions in opening up their spaces, and once they have the students convinced that the only thing that matters to success is individual hard work and dedication, and not further government intervention to these exclusive enclaves, then they fail the black child. Who is he going to blame, not the system because he took the credit for merit entry or few passes, he has to take the fall as an individual for failure too, even if the failure is systemic and intentional.

As Byrd said, ‘It is a complex puzzle of how students rationalize their position in elite spaces with colorblind conceptions of merit and individualism they hold dearly, and the prospects that racial inequality can often be the result of something other than a person’s efforts.

Byrd then hits it on the nail. ‘’Across segments of society, people find the argument that a person rises or falls on their individual efforts enticing, and echoes beliefs in the American dream. It is often to what degree do they support these views, how do they relate to such individualistic views, how much do they believe structural barriers can influence a person’s position in society and what, if anything, do they think could be done to address racial inequality’’.
What then are the solutions to this indoctrination and victimization to which most blacks seem to be blind to?

Max Price says, ‘I could provide countless examples of students who are black or female not being taken as seriously as their white or male colleagues. Who gets attention when speaking in a meeting? Who gets named first when forming a committee? Whose grammar or pronunciation gets corrected in public? Who is successful when dealing with bureaucracy?’ These are all the things we must confront on a sustained basis and reverse them.

Byrd makes a few suggestions. We must address inadequate curricula, policies and programs on our campuses to work beyond diversity toward conceptions of inclusion, which is much more difficult and requires a level of sustained, ongoing effort some institutions may be uncomfortable with, particularly as many face financial constraints that pose a false dichotomy of “diversity and inclusion” versus “educational quality and outcomes.”

We must have a complete break from our ugly past and institutional racism is the most dangerous systemic and subtle way of ensuring the past, and its pain of black subjugation and victimization continues.

This has to stop!

Vuyani Sokaba is Deputy Provincial Chairperson of the South African Student Congress (SASCO) in the Western Cape