The missing black students

CAMPUS ISSUES: UC Berkeley’s dearth of African American students is out of sync with our values and alienates members of our community

Today’s inauguration ceremony is an opportunity for Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. He will have the ears of the campus — professors, students, administrators and many other members of the community. To take full advantage of this opportunity, however, Dirks should take the time to reflect on the values and diversity of our campus and on who makes up our community.

Specifically, as he continues his tenure, he should bear in mind the appallingly low number of black students on UC Berkeley’s campus.

At his inauguration in 2005, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau addressed this issue head-on. He characterized “the situation for African Americans” as having reached a “crisis point.” Less than a decade earlier, California voters passed Proposition 209, the 1997 ballot initiative that prohibited the UC system from considering race in its admissions process. Birgeneau called out the measure as largely responsible for “creating an environment that many students of color see as explicitly discriminatory.”

Unfortunately, little has changed in the eight years since Birgeneau decried dramatically low African American enrollment numbers. In fall 2012, African Americans made up 3.4 percent of Berkeley’s student body, according to campus enrollment data. By comparison, census data show that African Americans make up roughly 6.6 percent of the state of California. The East Bay Express recently drew attention to this issue on the UC Berkeley campus. According to data from the UC Office of the President, nearly 43 percent of  black students admitted to UC Berkeley chose to enroll in fall 2012. For the rest of the UC campuses, about 51.5 percent of admitted black students ended up attending.

Even with continuing effects of Prop. 209 looming over his shoulder at every turn, Dirks has the chance to make real change. The Black Student Union receives about $200 per year in ASUC Senate allocations. To be clear, the ASUC’s system prioritizes funding groups by the number of years they have been associated with the ASUC, and the BSU has been affiliated for only the past three years. Still, $200 is not nearly enough to sustain such an important organization, and Dirks must work to ensure its funding reaches adequate levels.

UC survey data from 2008 to 2012 found that only 52 percent of black students at UC Berkeley concurred with the statement “students of my group are respected at this campus” — compared to 75 percent of Chicano/Latino students, the group in the racial/ethnic category with the next-lowest rate of perceived respect.

This is not to say the responsibility is entirely Dirks’. We, the student body, must work toward understanding and respecting the needs of students of color in our community. So while many of us may share the pride of this great campus on inauguration day, Dirks should think about those who have good reason not to feel like they can.