There has been a lot of chatter why UC Berkeley doesn’t have a larger black student base. One recent publication reported that more than half of African-American students who are accepted at Cal don’t go there because “they feel unwelcome.”
The LA Times featured a story on Cal freshman Kashawn Campbell, a straight A student from predominantly-black Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, who came to Cal, and was surrounded by, as the LA Times put it “white kids, Asian kids, rich kids, bearded hipsters and burnt-out hippies.”
Kashawn Campbell said “Sometimes we feel like we’re not wanted on campus. It’s usually subtle things, glances or not being invited to study groups. Little, constant aggressions.” And the LA Times reports that other black students at the table nodded in agreement.
I have a lot of experience with this subject. I graduated from UC Berkeley’s Masters Program in the Department of City Planning in 1987. In 1998, I was recruited by a Cal black alumn to be on the California Alumni Association’s Board of Director. In 2001, I was then asked to join the CAA Board Awards Committee. What I’ve learned over that time, and through to today, is that UC Berkeley’s major error in recruiting blacks to be students or active alumni is that the institution expects someone black to do the work and the majority white culture is loath to do any heavy lifting itself.
On its surface that may seem logical: why not have an advocate for the school who is African American go after other blacks? Why not ‘one of your own’, right? Well, as logical as it may seem, it’s actually a process that ads to the problem of isolation. Black students and alumns want to know that white students and alumns are going to be accepting of them. The basic answer to this expectation – the solution – is to have white students and alumns go out and get blacks.
That simple answer is something Cal has never done over the years of my association with the great university, and so I suppose I can say it was never done as a guess based on my knowledge of and experience with Cal’s culture.
Cal’s culture is very much based around the individual. There are a lot of people free to design their own programming of learning that can be a smorgasboard of classes from different areas, all seemingly disparate to all but the builder of the program. The only time that freedom is lacking is when a subject area is selected that has a hard-path of pre-selected courses, but even then at the junior and senior level, an enterprising student can indeed take the free-form path I have discussed.
And then there’s Cal’s famous bent toward acceptance of the weird – we even had a naked guy who was a student running around. The late Andrew Martinez was generally accepted at Cal and, if you look strictly at his UC Berkeley record, did really well. (The mental illness that befell him happened well after he graduated from Cal.)
To many Cal students, Martinez was the symbol of what UC Berkeley is all about: being yourself and crafting a rationale for it. It’s the same kind of ethic that spawned the free-speech movement that Cal’s so well known for. It’s the same kind of way of life that’s produced so much in the way of gifts of science, tech, and society. And yes, some, like the Atom Bomb, could be considered as something other than gifts.
But it’s also the kind of ethic that can be threatening to young black students. Many of us come from backgrounds that are socially conservative. The Cal ethic does not deal with that and says nothing of banning together to make minorities feel comfortable. The Cal idea of a solution always involves isolating black students like giving them a floor of their own in the dorms, when the real solution should be causing the majority to integrate with the minority.
Indeed, the Cal ethic is such that, from a social standpoint, everyone is a minority and if there’s nothing to counter that – to have everyone fuse together in some way – being around all black students will not solve the problem. Cal’s culture of isolation is the problem, and it’s one that has become more acute with the advent of digital media.
Today, it’s common, especially in the Bay Area, to walk along the street, or get on a BART train, and be in the middle of a sea of people, all with their heads buried in smart phones. The time that, in the past, was spent to some degree talking to a stranger, and making a friend in the process, is now used for interacting with a machine.
A black student who steps into this World today will be more isolated than his peers of 20 years ago – especially at Cal. Thus, the young African American student, fresh out of high school, seeks to be in an environment not just where at least some of the students look like them, but the majority is welcoming of them. Otherwise, they will come to UC Berkeley and feel isolated and alone and misunderstood – and all of that’s avoidable.
For Cal to change this dynamic, the University and the Alumni Association, the institutions of Cal, must do something they have never really done and have only paid lip service to doing: sending out white students, professors, and staff to aggressively recruit the best black students and show them that UC Berkeley has a black heritage that’s loved and appreciated by whites. It’s more than just saying ‘You’re admitted to UC Berkeley,’ it’s making a phone call or three to make sure they’re coming and then rolling out the red carpet when they get to Cal.
(I recall having a giant argument about this with the outreach director for the Cal Alumni Association during Cal Day in 1999. He, white, had all kinds of excuses why whites should not do this. I told him that Cal would risk being considered racist if whites didn’t get involved with recruiting blacks. We agreed to disagree, but it seems the advancing history is on my side.)
Right now, the good folks at the African American Student Development are all of color, and only help students who choose to come to Cal. The African American Student Development program needs to be expanded to include the process of outside recruitment and to designate whites at Cal who are in positions of leadership, including the Chancellor, to go out and get the best – and it starts with a phone call.
When I was on the CAA Board in 2000, we had the same conversation, only focused on getting black Cal alumni involved with the CAA. I sat at the back of the room listening to all of these elaborate ideas and simply got annoyed in the process. I raised my hand, and when my turn to speak came, I said “If you want black alumns to get involved at Cal, all you have to do is pick up the phone and make a call.” The students representing the Young Alumni Board expressed their agreement with me by snapping their fingers – none of the adults, my peers, did.
(I should add that in the nine years I have covered the NFL Draft, not one Cal black player who was in New York because they expected to be drafted in the 1st round has ever worn their school colors. Aaron Rogers, who’s white, at least had on a dark blue suit. By contrast, for players from the SEC wearing suits and accessories that represented their school was standard operating procedure. )
It’s simple: if you want black students at Cal, the desire must be real, or they will see that it’s not. I question Cal’s desire to have a truly active black student body, let alone its commitment to move past the idea that someone with a light-skinned or white face has all the right answers.
If Cal were committed to move past that point, it would have hired a black football coach a long time ago. But I’m told that there are some alumni who don’t want a black coach – this as Stanford University has hired Dennis Green, Tyrone Willingham, and David Shaw. Willingham and Shaw took Stanford to The Rose Bowl, and none of them – Green, Willingham, or Shaw – has ever lost The Big Game to Cal.
If UC Berkeley can’t even go out and get the best football coach who happens to be black, and Stanford can do so more than once, what does that say about Cal’s desire to bring in more black students?
I love UC Berkeley. I always have and I always will. Some of my best friends to this day have come from my time at Cal, being involved in many different ways, even trying to make up for the University losing my master’s thesis. And even though we had our problems, I’d like to think I prepped my then-girlfriend Lauren for the black man she eventually married – and divorced.
But I was also not the typical black student, or typical person for that matter. Growing up in racially mixed Oakland and going to Skyline High and Bret Harte Junior High prepared me for life in Texas and then made me desire to return home and go to UC Berkeley. I have always believed that I was the best in any situation, and it didn’t matter to me that I was the only black person in the room – Oakland did that for me. In fact, when I was accepted into the City Planning graduate program, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just an affirmative action admission. (I wasn’t. It was because I called Cal’s City Planning Graduate Admissions Secretary, the late Kay Bock, 29 times in a row, once each day. That’s me. I wanted to be at Cal and to study City Planning there.)
In many ways, Cal was perfect for me and because it was a part of the Bay Area culture I grew up in. But I was never part of a black student organization and didn’t want to be. When I grew up in Chicago, I was called ‘poindexter,’ occasionally harassed and made fun of, and told that I ‘talked white.’ Coming to Oakland in 1974 with my Mom was the best thing that could happen to me because in the Bay Area I could be myself. For me, since I was accused of ‘being white’ actually being in a white culture wasn’t alien to me.
But this isn’t about me. The reality is that for many African Americans it does matter that other African Americans are around them but it also matters that white culture embraces them as they are. Indeed, as I’ve grown in life, the one exciting development has been for me to see other blacks in places where once I was the only one, like Star Trek Conventions or Comic Con, or tech events. And to see a black man, Barack Obama, become President Of The United States.
Cal must be sensitive to this advancing racial integration, or else it will be regarded as being as racist today as it’s Southern counterparts were thought of in the 1950s.
Cal must recruit black students.