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Higher Education’s Complicity in the Trayvon Martin Tragedy

The immediate response to the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial on my campus was a mixture of outrage and frustration. A reaction of this kind isn’t surprising at a historically Black university, especially here at North Carolina A&T State University.

I’m a dean at the institution of higher education that produced the Greensboro Four—the students who created the lunch counter sit-in tactic that provided impetus and momentum to the Civil Rights movement.

There’s no debate about whether the range of reactions to the Zimmerman acquittal underscores the need for a national conversation on race. Unfortunately, that conversation is unlikely to happen because the groundwork hasn’t been laid for such an emotionally charged discussion.

There are various constituencies that share some measure of blame for an environment that renders an honest and meaningful discussion on race an unlikely prospect. One of the culpable entities is the higher education community.

That colleges and universities have failed to systematically engender frequent discussions and analyses of race and racial issues is both unfortunate and disturbing because these are institutions that predicate their existence on the pursuit of truth and enlightenment. But a review shows that only within the past three decades have the majority of predominantly White colleges and universities stepped away from the practice of racial discrimination in student enrollment. Almost all these institutions were completely silent about the pernicious effects of racial segregation during the long period when that practice dominated life in the South and was quite prevalent in the rest of the country.

Would the civic atmosphere be less polarized at this point if our institutions of higher learning had presented themselves as appropriate forums for the national dialogue on race that President Clinton called for 16 years ago? Even now, when we examine the curricular offerings and supplemental co-curricular activities that are presented to our best and brightest young people, penetrating analyses of race, prejudice and discrimination are usually conspicuously absent.

Trayvon Martin’s killing and George Zimmerman’s acquittal aren’t unusual. Quite the contrary. This tragedy mirrors hundreds, if not thousands, of similar incidents throughout the course of American history. Violence, including homicide, is a tool that White Americans have used since people of African descent first came to this country as a means of keeping us “in our place.” This phenomenon, and the reasons behind it, remains largely unexamined in our colleges and universities.

Substantial race-focused differentials in quality-of-life indicators are readily apparent. Huge documented gaps exist in employment and educational opportunities, income and wealth, health care, housing, and even environmental pollution exposure.

Meanwhile, students can matriculate in and graduate from the nation’s post-secondary institutions without an inkling that race has such an impact on the lives of people of color. Rather, they exit the academy with the increasingly popularized, but clearly inaccurate, notions that structural racism is a thing of the past and that a “level playing field” has now been achieved.

“White privilege” rarely goes on trial in colleges and universities. When it does, the predetermined verdict is, once again, not guilty.

Demographic trends document America’s rapid move toward the inevitability of becoming a country in which a majority of the population will soon be people of color, so colleges and universities will have an increasing need to enroll larger numbers of Black and Brown students to fill their classrooms.

Trayvon Martin’s killing only magnifies the demand from these young adults that their chosen institutions present the reality of America’s convoluted engagement with race as part of their educational experiences. There’s no justifiable reason to wait until the student population changes its complexion to make this adjustment.

The higher education community should see Trayvon Martin’s death as an opportunity to address the racial prejudice and discrimination—along with their consequences—that remain embedded in the nation’s social fabric.

Confronting this ugly truth in our academic institutions will set the stage for the emergence of concerned leaders who can direct America along a path where we can finally begin to implement our unrealized national goals of liberty and justice for all.

William B. Harvey is the dean of the School of Education at North Carolina A&T State University, a former vice president at the American Council on Education, and the founding president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. This article was first published by

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