It has been three years since the nation was shaken by the untimely murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, igniting a powerful movement to address racism in policing and other facets of society like education. In response, college and university leaders nationwide made significant commitments to improve campus racial climates.
They pledged millions to initiatives such as hiring diverse faculty, appointing Chief Diversity Officers, revising curricula to address issues of race and power, and implementing new systems to report and address bias and discrimination.
Today, these crucial efforts find themselves under siege, facing opposition from conservative politicians and think tank organizations who argue, albeit erroneously, that investments in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies and programs constitute a form of racial discrimination.
Data indicate that 40 anti-DEI bills have been introduced in 22 states, with seven already becoming law. Such divestments in DEI are not without consequences, as they threaten to exacerbate the very issues of campus racial climate that these initiatives aim to address.
At the University of Southern California’s (USC) Race and Equity Center, we collect survey data about undergraduate students’ educational experiences concerning race and other critical topics. The National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates (NACCC) has been administered to more than 2 million students across over 200 institutions.
Between the Fall of 2019 and the Fall of 2022, a period marked by heightened racial tensions due to the #BlackLivesMatter protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, an insurrection at the nation’s capital, and a wave of regressive DEI policies, we surveyed more than 95,000 students of color from 63 two-year and 98 four-year institutions. What we learned may not surprise you.
Whether strongly or slightly, a majority (54%) of Black students in our sample described their campus environments as racist. Equally concerning is that 11% and 25% reported experiencing physical aggression and verbal attacks, respectively. The classroom is also an unsafe place for Black students, with 29% noting racist experiences from white faculty–the highest percentage of all racial/ethnic groups. Twenty-seven percent of students surveyed report that such incidents have reduced their emotional well-being.
Mixed-race students had the second highest percentage of those describing the campus as racist in some way (52%), as well the highest percentage of verbal attacks (27%) than any other group, which reduced their emotional well-being (32%) and fostered a feeling of anger and frustration (52%).
For Latinx students in our sample, 17% reported experiencing racism from white faculty in class. That 65% of them perceive the campus environment as not racist, however, is curious. This discrepancy illustrates the insidious and covert nature of racism that campus DEI efforts can help bring to light and address head-on.
That 48% of Asian American students also described the campus environment as racist is not surprising given the surge in anti-Asian violence, particularly at the height of the pandemic. These students report experiences with racism from white faculty in the classroom (20%) as well as through verbal attacks on campus more broadly (27%).
These data offer just a snapshot into the daily realities faced by students of color in higher education. Indeed, racism is alive and well on our college campuses, and the DEI initiatives that are designed to address these very issues are under siege.
The harmful, misguided attacks on DEI will undoubtedly worsen existing racial inequities reflected in our analyses. Thus, now is not the time for higher education leaders and policymakers to retreat from efforts to make our campuses more diverse, inclusive, and equitable.
Fighting and prevailing against attacks on DEI will require a similar, well-coordinated, and funded countermovement among college leaders, policymakers, philanthropists, and think-tank organizations. The lives and livelihoods of our students hang in the balance, making the stakes considerably high. --
Dr. Royel M. Johnson is associate professor and chair in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, where he is also director of the National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates in the USC Race and Equity Center. He is the lead editor of “Racial Equity on College Campuses: Connecting Research and Practice.”
Dr. Jihye Kwon is the associate director for Survey Research at the USC Race and Equity Center and adjunct assistant professor at the Rossier School of Education at USC.