The noose was first discovered at 4:15 p.m.
That means that in the middle of the day on Sept. 7, in front of the often bustling Nyumburu Cultural Center, someone managed to hang the three-foot length of rope without ever being seen. The center is the hub for minority activity at the University of Maryland, and the noose is a symbol for historic oppression of African-Americans.
And yet, after dozens of interviews were conducted and hours of videotape were examined, no suspects were identified.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was like someone was spitting in our face,” says James Crabbe, a senior at Maryland. “We haven’t really come that far, I guess, if people out there still want control over minorities.”
The rest of the University of Maryland community was equally appalled. Shawna Murray, a vice president of the black student union, called the act one of “terrorism.” The chair of the Women’s Studies Department, Dr. Bonnie Dill, told NPR she was “very disturbed, very upset,” adding that “there’s been fear, there’s been tension.” The weeks following the noose’s appearance were marked by displays of solidarity and unity, demonstration and strength.
For all the fear and activism wrought by the hate crime, however, no one to blame has yet materialized. Not even a suspect. The same is true at Columbia, where a noose was hung on the doorknob of Professor Madonna Constantine’s office a month after the Maryland incident. The hateful acts are indicative of what is becoming a national trend. DiversityInc keeps a “Noose Watch.” During an average year, there are 12-15 noose incidents. This year, the number is up to 61. Of those, 22 have occurred in school settings, including a horrific scene at Reed College in Oregon this October in which six stuffed scarecrows were found hanging from a grove of cherry blossom trees.
Fourteen of these cases have yet to be solved. Some of the nooses, such as those at Maryland and Columbia, were flaunted in open areas where any number of people could have witnessed the rope as its knot was tied. As is the case for the issue of racism itself, resolution has proven elusive. Now, two generations removed from the height of the civil rights’ struggle, racism still shows its face with regularity. The reasons why, however, do not.
When 13 parents led by Oliver Brown first challenged the racial segregation of the Topeka, Kansas school system in 1951, they looked to overturn 90 years of the “separate, but equal” statute in the United States. By 1954, when the case appeared before the Supreme Court, Martin Luther King had begun preaching equality in Alabama, and the Civil Rights Movement was fully underway.
The decision in Brown v. The Board of Education was meant to cure the racial ills of all of America’s education systems, from elementary to university. It was intended to serve as the temporal partition separating “now” from “then.”
But if 1954 was supposed to be a turning point, it has been a wide bend.
Andrew Grant-Thomas is the deputy director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. He says that an analysis of the developing racial climate on campuses is a matter of perspective.
“In absolute terms, we’ve come very far. The statistics for people of color, in attendance and graduation, have gone way up. That’s good news,” he says. “The discrepancy, on the other hand, between white and minority is still enormous. So, in relative terms, we have a long way to go.”
Considering that we live in a time that outlaws segregation and overt racism, those words are distressing. But it is the belief in a linear progression of racial inclusion that Sean Eversley-Bradwell, an assistant professor at Ithaca College, believes lies at the root of our misunderstanding of racism.
“We think that, by default, as time goes on ‘race relations’ get better,” he says. “I’ll hear people say things like, ‘Can you believe that would take place in 2007?’ As though, somehow, because it’s 2007, we would not experience what we experienced 50 years ago. There’s the belief that because time passes, things automatically get better without doing any of the work.”
The proof is in the press. In 2004, celebrations, symposiums and conventions took place all around the country to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. Just this year, Americans celebrated the same anniversary of the forced inclusion of the “Little Rock Nine” in 1957. However, as Eversley-Bradwell points out, we didn’t talk about what happened in 1958 when Central High had to close its doors because of the mounting racial tensions.
“The fact that we celebrate these ideas clouds people’s judgments about what actually takes place,” Eversley-Bradwell says. “We haven’t really made that much progress. We think we have, because we celebrate it. But in the grand scheme of things, not much has really changed.”
But clearly, some things have changed, right? Socially-accepted beliefs have changed. The brazen racial bias of many societal structures, especially schools, is gone. Jim Crow is gone. Segregation is illegal. We’ve undergone something relatively unknown in the Western world—a civil rights movement.
As in the past, on the other hand, we still experience disparate outcomes based on race. According to the Kirwan Institute, nearly all schools that have a strong majority of minority students are also high poverty schools. For average white children, student poverty at public schools falls around 25 percent. For black students, school poverty ranges from 61 to 78 percent. Highly proficient, low-income (often minority) students have only a 50 percent chance of being placed in AP and Honors classes because of the low quality of their schools. De facto racial segregation of cities and schools has been on the rise since the mid-1990s, and it strongly correlates to economic segregation, resulting in the poor minority among the poor minority, the rich white among the rich white.
Perceptible racial inequalities regarding health care, employment, transportation, childcare and the criminal justice system all affect education. The effects accumulate over time, and the interplay of these factors is enough to doom many minority children early and often.
But it is the housing system to which education is most bound. It is a subject that gets a palpable rise out of the normally composed Grant-Thomas.
“Certainly, we have all kind of data that there is discrimination in all levels of the housing markets, from real estate steering to stiffer loans for blacks by banks. There is more than detectable discrimination at all stages, which makes the overall difference immense.”
Grant-Thomas then thinks back to some research that suggested that people, both white and of color, often choose to live in predominantly segregated communities. He takes a short breath, seemingly filters through a long-realized frustration, and responds.
“The argument that others want to live with ‘their own’ is nonsense. Many minorities find their selves poor and in low opportunity neighborhoods—and they know it. Studies show that if you ask them what they would change, they say crime and security. The notion that they would rather live in places that have schools with worse infrastructures, metal detectors, overcrowded classes…”
He pauses. “It is not a matter of choice. That’s ludicrous.”
Grant-Thomas has a simple point: where you live determines where you go to school, and quality of education determines subsequent life opportunities. Poorer neighborhoods have poorer schools with worse teachers, less funding and a diluted, less engaging curriculum. Minorities disproportionately constitute these poorer communities because racially prejudiced housing policies pushed them that way. Today, the average white student goes to a school that is 79 percent white. On top of that, research shows that low-income students attending middle-class schools perform higher than middle-class students attending high-poverty schools.
These facts paint a picture of systematic inequality and disparity that is little different from decades before. But, culturally, it is no longer tolerable or rational to carry— much less act upon— racist ideology. So, what does all this have to do with the increase in campuses incidents this year?
To help us understand, we need simply to look at the average GPA of UCLA’s admitted students in 1997. It was 4.125 on a 4.0 scale, with the extra points indicative of curves given for taking AP and honor classes. At the same time, 15 percent of high schools in California didn’t offer any AP or honors classes. Another 17 percent offered only a limited selection. Most of these schools were from high-poverty, mostly minority districts.
“Hardly any of those kids, no matter how brilliant, could achieve that high a GPA,” Grant-Thomas says.
And the numbers haven’t changed much. In 2006, the average weighted GPA at the largest school in the UC system was 4.26. That year, only 210 black students were admitted, making up 2 percent of all admitted students. Ten years earlier, UCLA admitted 488 black students, or about 5.1 percent.
The other factor is that, as Dill states, “Students come to this very diverse campus from a very un-diverse high school experience.”
This creates a new, heightened sense of race for many young people. Mix that with an atmosphere that is conducive to academic freedom— in other words, free thinking and speaking— and you have a potentially combustible package.
“When people have the freedom to open up and say whatever they want, they’re more willing to test the boundaries. I’m not sure that folks always believe what they say, but they’re willing to take that risk to see how far they can push the conventions of societal speech,” Eversley-Bradwell says.
“That means exploring both the positive aspects of identity as well as the not so positive; the much more contentious, the much more racialized, sexualized, classist. Those reasons are why, I think, we find more of this kind of behavior on college campuses.”
This insight shines light on a curious paradox: racist sentiment is counter to society’s norms, yet it persists in alarming numbers in university settings, and indeed, in society.
Eversley-Bradwell’s point is illustrated improbably well by Jerome Stafford. While at Howard University, a historically black school in Washington D.C., the tall, soft-spoken Stafford discovered something about himself and society.
“Even when I meet other black people, the first thing I think is, ‘Okay, they’re black.’ But on campus, they’re just people because we’re all black. You can find out more about the individual,” he said.
“You know, there can’t be the table of black kids,” he added with a chuckle.
Racial inequality and racist activity still exists because race is as pervasive and unavoidable a concept in our society as any other, yet we struggle to discuss it as we still mend from a fractured past. In an environment that encourages personal exploration and expression, well-brewed misunderstandings of race find a place to emerge. At the University of Maryland and at Columbia, they emerged in the form of a very old instrument of fear—the noose.
Sitting in his office adorned by the images of black leaders of years past like Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X, Eversley-Bradwell asks a challenging question.
“If we were taking severe steps backward in terms of race relations, what would it look like? Would it look like Hurricane Katrina? Would it look like the rapid increase of noose hangings all over the country? What would it look like if there was a culture shift that wasn’t for the positive?”
He looks aside for a moment, then struggles to find his own answer.
“I don’t know what the cultural shift is, but I’m saying that we should probably pay closer attention to the signs.”