Of all the clubs and organizations found in the social thickets of colleges and universities, one of the most unique is the Black Student Union. The first Black Student Union was founded at San Francisco State University during the mid-1960’s by Jimmy Garrett and Jerry Varnado; this was towards the end of the Civil Rights movement. This was a time when the portion of Black students in college was even tinier than now, and overt racism was at an all-time high. The Black Student Union was designed to provide a safe space for black students during this tumultous cultural time, and to generally promote activism for black equality. According to the San Francisco Gate, within a year’s time, a Black Student Union could be found in almost every college in the country.
There are people who question the relevance of the Black Student Union in our “post-racial world.” Nonetheless, the Black Student Union is still a necessity since racial inequality and prejudice are still mainstays in America.
I briefly spoke with Nia Alvarez Mapp, a member of the Cabrini University Black Student Union, and she had this to say on the utility of BSU’s: “A BSU is important the same way any club is. People from different backgrounds but have something in common come together and form a community. You don’t have to be black to join; you just have to know that BSU purpose is the unification to improve black lives.”
“A BSU is important the same way any club is. People from different backgrounds but have something in common come together and form a community. You don’t have to be black to join; you just have to know that BSU purpose is the unification to improve black lives.” – Nia Alvarez Mapp
Though racial tensions in this country are not as bad as they used to be, they are sufficiently subdued either. This is now the age of a Trump, where white nationalism is on the rise. All across the country, people of color and Muslims are being openly attacked and disparaged. Colleges, even “sancuary campuses, are no exception to the growth of hate crimes, particularly when it comes to black students. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, there have been a multitude of race/ethnicity-related hate crimes committed at colleges and universities this year alone. An example of this: the University of Texas in Austin. Flyers which featured a violent, cartoonish black man holding a knife, with the words “Around Blacks, Never Relax,” were spread around campus.
Another example? American University in Washington D.C., where bananas were found hanging from trees, with “Harambe bait,” written on them. This act happened on the same night that a black woman was elected to be the student body president.
These hate crimes send a clear message: racism is still alive and well, and higher education is not a safe space–let alone a sanctuary–from it. These incidents, and the normalization of intolerance introduced by the nation’s highest office, demonstrate why the Black Student Union is still relevant in 2017. Students need a place where they know that they can talk about their encounters with racial prejudice. Most other clubs and organization in college do not center, exclusively or otherwise meaningfully, on racial issues. There needs to be a campus-rooted space addressing race and ethnicity where students can bond, heal and promote racial equality. The Black Student Union provides just that.
The BSU is a symbol of racial equality, but, importantly, it also has practical uses. Black Student Unions across the US are known to host and provide activism-related events for their members. An instance of this occurred at Cabrini University in Philadelphia, PA, last fall. The student body of the BSU stood up in protest at a paneled discussion of Ta Neshi Coates’s Letter to my Son. Attendees interrupted the panel with statements addressing the reality of being black on campus. Then, Marketa Johnson, Cabrini BSU member, opined on areas that needed to improve when it came to minorities at the school. Chief among these needs: inclusion.
I remember what happened after this protest. More talks about the racial climate at the school started to take place. More professors began to have an open dialogue with their students about race-related issues and the need to identify and address their own shortcomings. Cabrini, like other schools, still has more progress to make–but it is a start. A start that would not have taken place without the Black Student Union.
From my own personal experience, my university’s BSU exists as a designated safe zone for students of all races, genders, and sexual orientations. I would not consider myself apart of the Black Student Union. Although, I stroll into a meeting from time to time. Usually, it’s just a fun place to be. The members in charge of the meeting do not force people to talk to each other. They just let everyone speak as much as they want to. While it is a place of business where various events and activities are planned, it’s also a place where people can be presentable–or ratchet if they chose to–and just relax and laugh for a bit.
As long as there is any form of racism still present on college campuses, the Black Student Union needs to be around.
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)