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Racism in Berkeley never left

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OCTOBER 14, 2013

“Kill the Mexicans!” my friend hollered as we watched a movie. Some of my housemates groaned. Others chuckled. I stayed quiet even though I’m Mexican American. We all continued watching the movie; it’s easy to shrug off discrimination when it’s not directly targeted at you.

Where I used to live, choosing not to challenge racist remarks was one of the compromises I made to fit in. I was a resident of a student housing cooperative where most of my housemates were white. And to be honest, not speaking up about racism wasn’t a compromise as much as it was a requirement. For instance, my housemates wanted to throw a “White Trash” party. In high school my friends called each other white trash, but I never thought I could, because I wasn’t white and didn’t live in a trailer park, as they did. Thinking about my high school friends, I opposed the party. Because of my position, I was booed. My housemates complained about not having the party until I moved out.

Racist remarks were also commonplace at my former co-op. During lunch, one of my friends, a humanities student with a 4.0, talked about interning with “dumb” blacks. Another housemate, a popular guy, posted a flier on his door depicting black graduate students laughing. It read: “Excellence Through Despite Diversity.” My housemates tolerated and ignored racist remarks such as this. Like minorities with strong cultural differences, individuals who were racists were seen as “transitioning” into a cooperative environment. The problem here is that minorities were the victims while racist individuals were the opposite. In putting up with these racist remarks, we effectively tolerated racism.

Some of my well-meaning housemates claimed that we live in a post-racial America and that thus, racism doesn’t exist. Yet students of color still face racist prejudice, meaning we can’t overcompensate for our progress toward racial equality by claiming racism doesn’t exist. Rather than condemning discrimination, other housemates told me to develop a “thicker” skin. Students of color are told this all the time. This may be well-intended advice, because we, like everyone else in the world, should learn how to deal with adversity maturely. It’s unfair, however, to say students of color need to be bullied into maturity. Certain students have the privilege of using discrimination to one-up others. They discriminate to make others feel bad. They also discriminate “jokingly,” as when my housemate hollered, “Kill the Mexicans!”

While it’s easy to show that remarks such as this are prejudiced, it’s much more difficult to prove that the actions of an institution are prejudiced. In the words of professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, individuals have the privilege “to be prejudiced without having to admit to themselves or others that race plays any part.” The pervasiveness of this privilege fuels the ambiguity and anxiety surrounding institutional racism. For instance, two years ago, the Berkeley College Republicans staged an “Increase Diversity Bake Sale.” They believed this could start a “debate” on campus. Mocking policies that give admissions preference to underprivileged communities under the guise of “starting a debate” is no less racist and equally problematic.

One way our university shows our enduring commitment to diversity is hanging up banners of nonwhite students on campus. Yet over the past few years, state funding for public education has been drastically reduced. As a result, UC Berkeley has more and more out-of-state students as well as reduced access to spaces intended for students of color. In other words, UC Berkeley had to choose between having nice things or nonrich Californians of color. As the banners demonstrate, underprivileged students are considered part of the university’s “nice things”; something it gets to parade around without having to answer for the consequences of what ensuring diversity actually means.

The problem here is not that the university doesn’t want to enroll more underprivileged students. It’s that in a time of economic hardship, our university was able to forgo its mission to educate Californians of different economic and racial backgrounds. It’s that, despite the university’s best efforts, budget cuts were not distributed equally. It’s unclear now whether an undergraduate education will be as affordable or accessible as it once was or whether international and out-of-state students will be pitted against Californians for enrollment.

Public institutions should operate on the same principles their constituents do. Their actions should be evaluated not only on the intent behind them but also on the impact they have on the communities they serve. And as I experienced, racist attitudes are still present and can go unchallenged throughout the community — whether it’s in a Berkeley housing co-op or at an event organized by college Republicans. Like most American cities, our campus struggles to integrate the student body racially even though diversity increases overall. It’s time we paid attention to what this means.

Josh Escobar writes the Monday column on the intersection of student and urban life. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @urbananimale.

OCTOBER 14, 2013