Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Rooted in the Soil: The Social Experiences of Black (1) Graduate Students at a Southern Research University

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Rooted in the Soil: The Social Experiences of Black (1) Graduate Students at a Southern Research University

Article excerpt

Black people in United States, especially in the southern United States where this study took place, have a complex view of their state universities. They know that from the time their flagship state universities were chartered in the late 1700s to the time that these institutions were desegregated in the 1960s, a span of more than 170 years, these schools were bastions of White privilege. Southern Blacks know all too well about the forced desegregation which took place in the early 1960s, involving riots, bloodshed, and martyrs (Culpepper, 2002; Eubanks, 2003). These universities from which Blacks were long excluded were supported by public money, much of which originated from an economic system of capitalism undergirded by slave labor and the exploitation of free Blacks during the Jim Crow Era.

More than 50 years have passed since the Brown v. Board of Education decision established that separate schools for Blacks and Whites were inherently unequal, yet Black and White students continue to have very different schooling experiences that are shaped by their racial group membership (D'Augelli, Hershberger, 1993; Ellis, 2001; Engberg, 2004; Feagin, 1992; Gasman, Gerstl-Pepi, Anderson-Thompkins, Rasheed, & Hathaway, 2004; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Grain, 2002; Margolis & Romero, 1998; Nettles & Millett, 2006; Swim, Hyers, Cohen, Fitzgerald, & Bylsma, 2003). As one graduate2 in our research stated, "There was a general attitude from the professors, students, and University personnel that Black students were not welcome and were only at the University because of affirmative action" (Black female, JD, 1995-2000).

The legacy of our segregated American society is that only our schools and work places can guarantee some semblance of desegregation. Yet in the higher education environs of research universities, Blacks remain underrepresented as students, faculty, and administrators--still invisible against the backdrop of an American society where education is a primary route to upward mobility and increased wages (Adair, 2001). Another participant in our research study commented that the racism he experienced in his graduate program was so intrinsic it "must be rooted in the (Southern) soil. ... " This participant, a 1990 Black male PhD graduate, went on to say that "past distortions must be addressed and debunked ... systems of exploitation must be acknowledged and their retarding effects must be rectified." Our research in large part seeks to address the query, "Is it rooted in the soil?" What accounts for the failure of our higher education system to pass the obligatory point of desegregation and to reach the self-actualization point of integration?

The setting for this study is a southern flagship state university located in a small city of approximately 100,000 residents. This research university historically serves undergraduate instate students, approximately 25,000 in the Fall of 2006. However, in a state where 29% of the citizens are Black, a mere 6.6% of the student population is Black and the picturesque southern campus still hints of the University's distant but near legacy of segregation. Confederate flags fly on fraternity houses and are displayed on students' tee shirts and car tags. The campus newspaper consistently features debates and dialogues on Affirmative Action issues, with White students questioning the fairness of administrative remedial actions despite the continued under-representation of African American students and faculty. Since the campus environment significantly affects the participation, retention, and daily circumstances of Black students (Allen, 1985; Blackwell, 1985, 1987; Bowen & Bok, 1998; D'Augelli & Hershberger, 1993; Ellis, 2001; Feagin, 1992; Golde, 2005; Smith, 1980; Swim et al., 2003; Yosso, Parker, Solorzano, & Lynn, 2004), our study asks if the campus climate is part of the reason for the low enrollment of Black students. Because Black students have been considered the primary special population at the university since its turbulent desegregation in the 1960s, this study focuses on their experiences. …

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