Perceptions of Racism on Campus

By Marcus, Ann; Mullins, Larry C. et al. | College Student Journal, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Perceptions of Racism on Campus

Marcus, Ann, Mullins, Larry C., Brackett, Kimberly P., Tang, Zongli, Allen, Annette M., Pruett, Daniel W., College Student Journal

This study examined students' perceptions of racial discrimination in classrooms, on campus, and in contacts with instructors at a Southern university. Survey questionnaires were administered in an 8% proportionate stratified random sample of classes. The ANOVA findings support conclusions from numerous other racism studies that universities are not immune to racism.


Despite the tremendous strides resulting from civil rights legislation, racism remains one of the most pressing social problems in the US (Jackson & Solis, 1995). No setting is immune and college campuses have found themselves embroiled in the discussion. Racial issues are significant in all aspects of campus life including admissions, curriculum, sports, social interaction, and residence halls (Altbach, 1991). Hate crimes have been prominent on university campuses for the last two decades but vary widely in their targets and severity (cf. Downey & Stage, 1999 for a complete discussion). In recent years, attempts to curtail racially discriminatory activities have focused largely on speech codes to limit inflammatory presentations (Altman, 1993) but these attempts have not been well received (Gunther, 1995).

Studies of racial tolerance on college campuses have met with mixed results. While Smith, Roberts, and Smith (1997) found the majority of students' attitudes to be incompatible with modern racism, earlier studies indicated an increase in White students' prejudices (e.g., McCormack, 1995; Phenice & Griffore, 1994). Focusing on the concept of modern racism or "new racism," Kent (1996) asserted that colleges and universities can no longer "pretend to offer a refuge from the swirling antagonisms of a highly racialized society" (p. 45). Citing the unpublished work of Hewitt and Seymour (1991), Biasco, Goodwin, and Vitale (2001) indicated that the new or "subtle racism" is "expressed covertly by non-minority students through behaviors of avoidance" (p. 524). Additionally, most minority students are aware of this "subtle racism," perceiving it from both White faculty members and White students.

Research into the nature of race relations on campus indicates that the university is a microcosm of society and faces the same problems as society at large (Kent, 1996). Incidents at Stanford University, Arizona State University, The University of Mississippi, and other campuses warn that colleges are not immune to racial unrest. FBI statistics from 1998 noted 250 reported incidents of hate crimes on college campuses (McGrew, 2000). In a report entitled "Hate Goes to School" researchers at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate events and groups, conclude that these numbers "vastly underrepresents the real level" of hatred on campus, and estimate that crimes or bias incidents occur weekly (Intelligence Reports, 2000, p. 8).

The racially intolerant campus climate has many consequences. As Altbach (1991) notes, "White students remain liberal in their attitudes about race relations, although there seems to be an undercurrent of resentment against affirmative action and other special programs for minorities" (p. 4). Ethnic minority students are often alienated from Whites. In a study at a small public university in California, Loo and Rolison (1986) found that minority students were significantly more likely than Whites to be socially isolated and less likely to feel that the university reflected their values. These differences were explained by the pressure on minority students to acquire the culturally dominant White, middle-class values of the campus, as well as the fact that only a small percentage of the student body was an ethnic minority. Suen (1983) found that Black students not only scored higher on alienation scales, but also were more likely to drop out than were White students.

Restricted social interaction between members of different racial groups is thought to be predictive of the overall lack of communication and feelings of distrust between groups. …

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