Written by: Varun Hukeri
A Democratic Mayor, a nonpartisan Mayor, and a former Republican Congressman walk into Hogg Memorial Auditorium to debate the state of black America.
“The State of Black America” was among the panels presented at the Texas Tribune Festival hosted at the University of Texas at Austin in September. The panel featured Democratic Mayor of Atlanta Kasim Reed, nonpartisan Mayor of San Antonio Ivy Taylor, and former Republican Congressman Allen West. Though all three were black Americans themselves, they had different perspectives on what it means to be black in the United States and how to address the discrepancies that exist within and between racial communities.
In many ways, black America today is an indication of civilizational and cultural progress, especially with the passage of the Civil Rights Act fifty years ago. However, these advancements neglect the less-than-impressive progress black America has made relative to the nation as a whole.
A legacy of discrimination continues to impact the economic and social wellbeing of black individuals and communities.
These days, it is almost a miracle to see a Democrat and a Republican agree on an issue. But during the panel, both Mayor Reed and Congressman West shared common ground on what issue was most critical for black Americans: education.
Inequality in education is a phenomenon that continues to impact black youth. There is perhaps no place more connected to the black experience than the nation’s colleges and universities, which have not only been made more accessible to black students over the years but have also given them a platform to speak out about issues that impact their communities.
So, when Senator Ted Cruz, a feature speaker at another Texas Tribune panel, said that black Americans “perceive” the obstacles that face their communities, he was met with boos from the audience.
The two panels brought up an important idea: the perception versus the reality of the obstacles that affect black Americans, particularly black students.
Fellow writer, Jacob Hood, wrote an article that featured the stories of two University of Texas students, as well as the insight of a prominent UT professor on the experiences that black students face at predominantly white educational institutions. While individual experiences are unique, statistical methods of inquiry conclude that certain trends and correlations do exist within the black student community.
Surveys show that black students disproportionately feel certain pressures compared to white students and even other students of color. Encounters with racism and the “little fish, big pond” idea can affect the success of black students, leading to feelings of exclusion as well as mental and emotional health issues.
In January 2016, the JED Foundation and the Steve Trust conducted a national survey of around 1,500 college students. They found that half of white students felt academically prepared while only 36% of black students felt the same. Furthermore, 75% of black students were also more likely to feel that they were being left behind as compared with 61% of white students.
Black students have also reported facing obstacles in their interpersonal relations with faculty and peers. A field experiment conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and New York University found that when students contacted professors for mentorship and assistance, faculty were significantly more responsive to white men than women and people of color.
At the graduate level, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles discovered that students of color also reported feeling excluded from the larger student population.
They reported that their white peers didn’t always agree to share information with them, assuming they were undeserving of their place at the university or were trying to “piggyback” off of their work.
This feeling of exclusion is not uncommon, even at The University of Texas at Austin.
In October, the UT Chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas hosted a bake sale protesting affirmative action, with the prices of the baked goods based upon race and sex. Many students of color, especially black students, staged a counter-protest, stating that the bake sale perpetuated the exclusionary notion that those students were accepted at the University solely due to the color of their skin.
The panel demonstrated that a black Democrat, Republican, and nonpartisan all agree on the importance of education for the black American community, but educational attainment is not easy given the challenges that black students continue to face.
While black students represent just four to five percent, on average, of incoming classes at UT, the unity and leadership of the black student body continues to tie the community closer to each other and the University at-large.
Significant advancements continue to be made in educational equality, and it will soon be a reality for every black Longhorn that “what starts here changes the world.”