The Current State of Black Student Unions
Diverse surveyed the leaders of 23 BSUs across the country to see how the organizations have evolved over the years. All the BSUs surveyed were found to be mainly socio-cultural organizations. Close to 40 percent of them have few or no ties to the larger Black community, as a mere nine of the 23 leaders surveyed say a community service program is one of their major initiatives each year.
Some of the social events the BSU leaders say they host include banquets, BSU weeks, fashion shows, parties, step shows, alumni gatherings and beauty pageants. Cultural events include lectures, panels or forums with leading Black scholars, Black History month programming and Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.
“Our main goal is to focus on the African diaspora and just to make Black people feel at home when they come to the campus,” says Aishah Bruno, who served as BSU treasurer for the past year at Brooklyn College, where she recently graduated. “We throw parties, we have social events and we go on education trips. We’re social, but we get political when necessary.”
Damita Davis, director of multicultural programs at Emmanuel College in Boston, says her BSU “is known for its educational as well as social events on campus.”
Today, BSUs compete with fraternities and sororities for membership. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, most of the Black students were involved in both BSUs and Greek organizations, but the situation is different today. Close to three-quarters (17 of 23) of the leaders surveyed say the majority of Black students on their respective campuses are not active members of BSUs.
The arrival of foreign-born Black students is also chipping away at the BSU membership. Students from Africa, the Caribbean and South America have formed their own African Student Unions and Caribbean Student Unions over the years. Today, 52 percent of the leaders surveyed reported there are separate organizations for these Black student groups.
In addition to their dwindling membership, BSUs are coming under attack along with many of the other race-specific organizations and programs in higher education.
“Black colleges themselves have come under attack,” says Dr. Joy Ann Williamson, a higher education historian at Stanford. “Anything that is racially specific or race conscious has come under attack, whether it’s affirmative action, Black colleges, Black studies, Black cultural centers and even Latino cultural centers.”
Dr. Nathan Hare, former chair of the Black studies department at San Francisco State University and current chairman of The Black Think Tank, says any attack on race-specific programs in higher education — or any other aspect of society — is ridiculous.
“It’s absurd to say that [student groups] shouldn’t be race-specific when everything else is,” he says. “It’s specific that Black people are flunking out of an educational system that is not working for them. It’s specific that Black people are herded into inner-city ghettos in the worst sections of town. It’s specific that Blacks are more likely to die. It’s specific that Blacks are filling the prisons through laws that Whites made with White judges, mostly White lawyers and White juries.”
But despite the challenges, many BSUs in recent years have either been founded, resurrected or returned to a more activist ideology. In 1997, students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater founded the National Black Student Union, which is set to host its ninth annual conference this year from Nov. 17-19 in Lake Geneva, Wis. Students representing 37 BSUs, mostly from the Midwest, attended last year’s conference. The conference and the NBSU serve as means for BSUs to exchange experiences and strategies, says Roger L. Pulliam, the NBSU’s senior adviser and the assistant vice chancellor for academic support services at the UW-Whitewater.
As recently as January, a BSU was established at the University of South Dakota. Also this year, Gwynedd-Mercy College in Pennsylvania restarted a BSU. In 2005, the University of Idaho resurrected its BSU and Cowley College founded one in 2004. The University of Vermont established one in 2003, the same year Lehigh University revived theirs.
Williamson isn’t surprised that students are still organizing.
“It’s the grievances that often bring about organizing,” she says. “So as long as Black students are alienated, disaffected, racism continues to exist and they continue to experience it in their classrooms, and with their peers and in a variety of other ways, then I would think that the need for Black student associations continues. I don’t think that students are using them to their fullest advantage. But I also don’t think they should be made obsolete.”
Reader comments on this story:
There is currently 1 reader comment on this story:
“Response to the article on the Current State of Black Student Unions”
I found the article on “The Current State of Black Student Unions” very insightful. I am employed at a community college in southwest Kansas and our Black student enrollment is approximately four percent (4%), yet the Black Student Union ceased to exist for over 12 years (consecutively) on our campus. There were no structured organizations on campus or in the community for the empowerment of Black students, which I believe contributes to the downfall of the Black community at-large.
In December of 2004, I and two other colleagues (Kimberly Binns and Hank Harris) decided that it was time to give back to the Black community at-large, and reinstate the organization on our campus. We recruited and worked with Black students and others who wanted to uplift the Black community (on campus and off).
The first year out it seemed as if nothing was going as planned, but after much hard work we got the job done. And in January of 2006 we had our first REAL victory. We held the first Martin Luther King Day Community March. We had over 90 marchers at the 1st march and over 100 campus personnel and community members attend the 2nd annual Martin Luther King Day program. We partnered with one of the local elementary schools and held the 1st Black History Month Celebration program at the school for the kids.
I said all of the above to say this, Black Student Unions are still needed on a variety of levels, and just because one is involved with a fraternal organization doesn’t mean that it has to stop there. We should educate our Black students on how to be responsible citizens; let them know that servitude is a life long commitment; and who better to assist with the change process than YOU!
-Chrissy L. Davis, M.S.W.
Seward County Community College
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