Do U.S. colleges have a race problem?

Racial incidents reported on several campuses
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Story highlights

  • Unrest at University of Missouri has focused attention on racism at U.S. colleges
  • Recent racial incidents have been reported at USC, UCLA, Yale
  • Expert: "Only a tiny portion of the racist incidents ever get reported"

(CNN)Frat brothers chanting racial epithets. People in blackface at "gangsta"-themed parties. A noose hung around a campus statue of a former black student.

U.S. colleges and universities are more diverse than ever, and yet episodes like these happen with alarming regularity. The current unrest at the University of Missouri, whose president and chancellor resigned Monday amid protests over the school's handling of racism on campus, is just the latest and most high-profile in a recent string of racially charged incidents.
Hundreds of students marched on the University of California, Los Angeles campus in protest last month after some students wore blackface to a Kanye West-themed fraternity party. Across town at the rival University of Southern California, student leaders are demanding action after the undergraduate student body president, who is Indian-American, was accosted with a racial slur by another student who threw a drink at her.
    In September, a former University of Mississippi student was sentenced to six months in federal prison for hanging a noose last year around a statue of James Meredith, the school's first black student. And the University of Oklahoma banned the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon and expelled two students last spring after members were caught on video doing a racist chant on a bus.
    Even seemingly well-intentioned acts are exposing simmering racial tensions. Yale University's campus erupted in anger last week after an administrator sent an email to students questioning whether setting limits on ethnically or culturally sensitive Halloween costumes was restricting their free speech.

    No upward trend

    What's going on here? It may seem like American colleges suddenly have a race problem, but observers say this recent rash of racial harassment is not unprecedented.
    Most universities are seen as bastions of tolerance and progressive thought. But they're also places where young men and women, many living away from home for the first time, are thrown together with other ethnic groups with whom they may be unfamiliar.
    It may not be surprising, then, that minority students at schools with less diversity experience more incidents of stereotyping and discrimination, according to a 2012 UCLA study (PDF). Correspondingly, reports of discrimination occur much less often at schools where the student body is more ethnically diverse, said Sylvia Hurtado, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA and the study's lead author.
    Add freedom from parental supervision, racially divided campus cliques and the sometimes-ugly effects of alcohol, and you have a climate that can produce racial tensions, experts say.
    "Racial incidents on college campuses are nothing new. They happen all the time," said Robert Bruce Slater, managing editor of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which has been keeping a database of racial incidents on campuses for nearly 25 years.
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    In fiscal year 2015 the U.S. Department of Education recorded 146 cases of racial harassment on college and university campuses, down from 177 the previous year but up from 96 in 2009.
    "We have seen no upward or downward trend over the past quarter-century," Slater added. "It's been steady, and probably only a tiny portion of the racist incidents ever get reported."
    In fact, research has showed that only about 13% of racial incidents at colleges get reported to a campus authority (PDF), suggesting that the problem is much worse than it appears.
    But several factors may be amplifying the issue as never before. In an age in which campus misbehavior can be documented with a phone and spread on Facebook or Twitter within seconds, racist incidents are less likely to go unnoticed.
    "Social media has certainly been a factor in getting the word out," Slater said. "If something happens on campus now, the word is going to spread incredibly quickly. It definitely has an amplifying effect."
    And at the University of Missouri at least, black campus activists say they felt emboldened by #BlackLivesMatter, the protest movement that has sprung up across the country since the fatal shooting of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, about two hours to the east.
    Grad student Jonathan Butler, whose hunger strike helped topple University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe, participated in protests in Ferguson. "#FergusonTaughtMe Resistance," he tweeted Monday afternoon after Wolfe stepped down.
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    Empowered students

    It's not just Missouri where students, concerned about the racial climate at their schools, are wielding newfound power. Campus activists across the country, fed up with what they see as their administrators' inadequate response to racial harassment, are taking matters into their own hands.
    At Ithaca College in upstate New York, student leaders are seeking a vote of "confidence" or "no confidence" in President Tom Rochon by November 30 after what they say was a slow response to several allegedly racist incidents on campus.
    Administrators at UCLA are conducting an investigation into the racially charged Kanye West party, thrown jointly by a frat and a sorority, after a large group of students crammed into Chancellor Gene Block's office in early October, demanding a response. Social activities at the fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon and the Alpha Phi sorority have been suspended.
    At USC, where a member of a fraternity called student President Rini Sampath an "Indian piece of s***," student leaders are demanding a campuswide action plan against bias, including the appointment of a top administrator to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
    And then there's Yale, where more than 700 members of the campus community signed an open letter condemning an October 30 email by Erika Christakis, an associate master at one of the university's residential colleges. Christakis, responding to another campus email cautioning against racially insensitive offensive Halloween costumes, wondered, "Is there no room anymore for a ... young person to be a little bit obnoxious ... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?"
    In the days afterward, a group of students yelled epithets at Christakis' husband, Nicholas, master of the residential college, and Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway was surrounded on campus by hundreds of aggrieved students demanding a reponse.
    Campus observers believe the episode exposed long-simmering racial tensions at Yale, where a fraternity reportedly turned away black students from a Halloween party, saying the gathering was for "white girls only." The frat, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, has denied the allegations.
    "For starters: the protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party. They're about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day," Yale senior Aaron Lewis wrote in a blog post.
    "They're about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long," he added. "The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn't."

    Solutions

    So what can educators do to address this problem?
    Before his resignation, Missouri Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin ordered mandatory sensitivity training for faculty and students, but some black students said the gestures were insufficient and called for school officials to implement broader cultural sensitivity training.
    At Yale, a member of the Black Student Alliance urged the administration to add more campus initiatives for minorities and give students input on administration and faculty hiring.
    USC student leaders are demanding more funding for scholarships, fellowships and programming for minority groups along with campus cultural centers serving African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, LGBT students and others.
    And campus activists across the country are asking schools to admit more minority students and hire a more diverse faculty.
    The most immediate, and fashionable, step may be mandatory diversity training for faculty and students. But Slater, of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, is not convinced that it does any good.
    "A strict no-tolerance policy is probably the best strategy," he said. "If students know they are going to be expelled, suspended or have their financial aid cut if they participate in racist behavior, it is likely students would think twice before acting in an offensive manner."