The Need Still Exists for Black Student Unions
As a racial and ethnic minority of Asian and African American heritages, I have experienced the importance of having social networks and interactions with people — especially people of color. Despite integration, civil rights gains and living in an era of diversity and multiculturalism, people still seek to find others like themselves as a means of establishing their identity. This natural human tendency has made me appreciate organizations such as Black student unions and Asian student unions, etc.
The mission and philosophy of Black student union organizations should be to help students strive for academic excellence, promote positive images of African Americans and help students become an integral part of a college community. Ironically, during my involvement with BSUs, I have witnessed a high dropout rate among Black students, an increased number of students on academic probation and a decrease in student participation in the BSU. I have interviewed students who say BSUs are “a joke” and have “no real significance.” The role of BSUs has gradually deteriorated since their establishment 30 years ago. How can this deterioration be explained?
BSUs sprang up on college campuses across the nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s — a time when people of color were confronting racial injustices and inequalities. The BSU developed primarily as an organization whose focus was to address political and civil rights issues both on and off campus. BSUs and Black social institutions attacked issues of racial discrimination, economic exploitation, political disfranchisement and lack of access to resources such as educational facilities and health care.
According to Dr. Michael D. Blackwell, director for Multicultural Education and a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, during the Reagan era (1981-1989), there was an increase in conservatism that resulted in a backlash over affirmative action and other liberal policies that followed on the heels of the civil rights movement. College campuses were not immune to these political turns — administrative attention paid to BSUs eroded and they became more structurally detached from the dynamics of overall campus life. In addition, racial discrimination was considered of lesser importance than socioeconomic class, and the failure of Blacks to rise from poverty or working-class status was attributed to laziness, lack of drive, moral turpitude, etc.
Like Booker T. Washington, the philosophy of “picking oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” became the response to problems in retention, persistence to graduation, economic solvency, job skills attainment and access to goods and services. Rugged individualism and other tenets of the Protestant work ethic, the American creed and the American dream supported the notion that hard work would inevitably lead to success.
Currently, on many university campuses, the BSU serves primarily as social organizations. Parties are a favorite BSU past time. Their role has shifted from responding to the political and racial climate of the past to that of a social organization. This social purpose notwithstanding, the BSU does intermittently serve as an important part of the university infrastructure as a symbol of a more overt racist past and as a social network for faculty, staff and students of color on predominantly White campuses.
Generally speaking, it is still difficult being a minority student within a largely White educational and social environment. The authors of How to Succeed on a Majority Campus: A Guide for Minority Students, write that “involvement in organizations such as these have a positive influence on students of color… In addition to finding a supportive community in these groups, [students] can band together to promote change on college campuses.”
From this perspective, organizations such as BSUs remain critical. They are a part of this so-called “educational niche” where people are sensitive to issues and where negative stereotypes are less likely to be present. Ideally, these organizations can and often do serve as organizations that allow for leadership development, community involvement, networking and vocational/career support.
In addition, Black student unions are also instrumental in providing support in the survival process and persistence to graduation. Consequently, Black student unions are still significant to maintain, sustain, buttress and bolster African American students today. It is my hope that students, faculty and administrators will continue to acknowledge the importance and usefulness of such student organizations and continue to support their existence.
Michelle L. McClelland is a graduate
assistant in the School of Health, Physical
Education and Leisure Services at the
University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
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