written by: Sam Coulson
This year has proved to be a cultural reckoning. Not only do we continue to grapple with COVID-19, but our nation has seen long fought issues of racial injustice coming to a head. The deaths of George Floyd and Breona Taylor, among the countless other lives tragically cut short by police brutality, have sparked national, even global, conversations about race in America about grappling with our nation’s history of racism and the systematic oppression of people of color. There is a cry for change: to dismantle the racist traditions that the United States are steeped in.
Just as our nation is built on those racist traditions, our colleges and universities are as well. Enter Lawrence Ross, a scholar and author of Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s College Campuses.
On September 3rd, Ross delivered a virtual lecture about racial injustice on college campuses. This event was co-sponsored by the Inter-Cultural Greek Council, Panhellenic Council, and Inter-Fraternity Council. These organizations, attached to CMSS and FSL, hosted this event to educate the campus community and to begin a cultural shift on JMU’s own campus. The aim of Ross’s work on collegiate racism, whether it be books or lectures, is to dive deep into the topic and determine if these issues are systematic.
Ross began by highlighting racist incidents within the past few years, whether it be the use of slurs, instances of blackface, or outright violence. Ross didn’t shy away from highlighting moments in JMU’s past either, discussing a few moments of blackface on our campus. After highlighting these moments, he discussed how campus racism is often handled, or rather mishandled, by officials at America’s universities.
“Three Ize’s equals a miss,” Ross says, in regard to how universities tend to individualize, minimize, and trivialize instances of racism.
Culturally, Ross shared that racism is bred from white supremacy, a philosophy deeply ingrained in America and its founders. Even American “heroes” like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln took public stances in favor of white supremacy. Since the American culture is built on this idea, Ross formulated that college campuses, acting as predominantly white micro-societies, often continue this supremacist cycle.
Ross structured the remainder of his lecture on formulating the model of the Modern Racist College Campus, dividing each tenet of this campus on one of the four years of college. Freshman year was dedicated to, “A Separate and Unequal Education,” and highlighted the difference between a diversion to race, or the myth of colorblindness, versus an awareness of race. Moving to Sophomore year, Ross discussed the tendency to “Honor the Dishonorable.” He spoke to how college campuses, often full of tradition, have iconography that honors racists. JMU is no stranger to this, as the board of visitors recently voted to change the names of several campus buildings named for Confederate generals.
In Junior year, Ross directly pinpoints a source of these problems, touching on “Racist Fraternities and Sororities” and discusses the racist histories of these organizations that is all too often ignored. Whether it be race restrictions on membership or blackface parties, Greek organizations must wrestle with their pasts. It is these pasts that Ross addresses with Senior year which tackles “A History of Violence.” He discussed how white supremacy is about normalizing cruelty and how the history of racism present on college campuses continues the cycle.
In the way of solutions to these problems, Ross recommends the deconstruction of systems. In order to change, we must deconstruct and rebuild our primarily white student body, our campus environments, and our own value system. And while this deconstruction won’t happen overnight, conversations like this one are a part of the slow march forward to progress.