Mirror, mirror: Reflections on race in higher education

How will we face down our ghosts if we can’t even commit to cultivating the talent in our midst?

What’s going on? Marvin Gaye’s plaintive question from decades ago echoes hauntingly today. With each new incidence of brown-skinned people being brutalized, it returns more bitterly to our lips, triggered by each new image from Ferguson to Tempe, Baltimore to Cleveland, Staten Island to Charleston … the list goes painfully on.

The geography and frequency of these horrors are bewildering. We do not recognize ourselves as we search the mirror for the America we think we know: of equal rights, equal opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness. But we cannot bring ourselves to truly search our reflection. If we could, we would see through our self-distortions.

We desperately want to be post-racial and post-gender—we want to be post-difference. Yet we fail to teach the next generation to exorcise the ghosts of our past. So, we are shocked when a bus full of students ardently shouts a racist chant, even as Confederate flags continue to fly.

The paradox is stunning. We hide behind the explosion of diversity, soothing ourselves with the hope that so much fluid demographic and social change will settle the waters of racism, even as those ghosts of black and white come out from hibernation.

Turning our backs

Why, you might ask, is a college president lecturing on this? As colleges chase the mantle of selectivity over inclusivity, we knowingly turn our backs on the fast-growing, first-generation, low-income, largely black and brown talent pool in the communities right at our gates.

We continue to favor a “better prepared,” select, if not necessarily more resilient, student body deemed meritorious by narrow metrics of tests they prep for all of their lives.

How will we face down our ghosts if we can’t even commit to cultivating the talent in our midst? Aren’t we entrepreneurs and innovators who succeed by taking risks?

Newark, N.J., is a “college town”—60,000 students, faculty and staff at Rutgers University-Newark, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Essex County College alone.

Many, perhaps most, represent the largely untapped talent pool of metropolitan America, with stories and struggles and dreams worthy of our city’s 350-year history as a place that welcomes those who left a homeland, whether in the Great Migration, South to North, or in the waves of immigration since, to find freedom and make life better for their children.

Yet those stories of hope and perseverance cannot exorcise our ghosts if we turn a blind eye to the talent that grows up “stuck in place,” as Patrick Sharkey reminds us, all across America and certainly in Newark.

To do that, we have to change the map of inequality into a map of opportunity both for those marginalized by decades of systemic prejudice in housing, employment, education, healthcare and law enforcement, and those dreamers with the very same aspirations for excellence. If we fail to deal with our history, it will doom us by eerily repeating itself as America’s past continues to haunt us.

We in higher education can start by looking at our own reflections in the mirror, facing the realities of our ivory towers that are aided, abetted, and kept alive by the likes of U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Might we instead embrace the impact that we too can have as institutions anchored in place, collaborating with respect and reciprocity in our communities, with public and private partners to sustain change in our midst, rewarding not just knowledge in the abstract but its grounded applications too, and opening the doors to more of our next diverse generation of citizens, professionals and leaders?

Finding the courage to look at ourselves with such honesty and listen to each other’s stories is the only way to understand our differences, acknowledge our faults, heal, and move forward as communities and as a nation. It all starts with learning to listen as Marvin Gaye urged us:

Don’t punish me with brutality / C’mon talk to me / So you can see / What’s going on.

Nancy Cantor is chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark.

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