The Black Lives Matter movement has arrived on college campuses and universities with the same ferocity it brought to the streets of American cities last year, after grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, refused to indict white officers involved in the deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Black students and their friends and allies protested for Brown and Garner on campuses last year too. At Princeton University, where I teach, nearly 500 students participated in campus protests following the non-indictments.
But recently, the protests have turned inward — toward a campus climate that many African-American students describe as hostile, indifferent and, at times, contemptuous of their presence. Despite vocal efforts to minimize the nature of the protests, thousands of African-American students have been protesting and demonstrating on college campuses — large and small, public and private — across the country. At Princeton, many of the same students who stood up to police violence are now confronting the administration’s continued honoring of Woodrow Wilson, the former president of both Princeton and the United States, who was also a virulent and unrepentant racist.
The responses to these campus protests have ranged from sympathy and solidarity to incredulity and anger. Some in the media have portrayed black students as coddled, fragile or entitled, always with the implication that they are overreacting to trivial issues. The common assumption is that black students, especially those on Ivy League campuses, have nothing to complain about.
But these protests are not only about the conditions black students encounter on campus. They are also shaped by their complicated experiences coming of age during the presidency of Barack Obama. When Obama was first elected in 2008, Americans of all backgrounds were tantalized by the promise of living in a post-racial or colorblind society. Unfortunately, those expectations have been shattered repeatedly.
The idea that black students should just be quiet and enjoy their supposedly privileged lives overlooks the reality that even solidly middle-class African-Americans often face economic insecurities and inequality that their white peers do not.
Under Obama, few demographics have faced more uncertainty than the African-American middle class. There are many reasons for this, but a central one is the collapse of black homeownership following the 2008 financial crisis. According to one report, a staggering 240,000 African-Americans lost their homes to foreclosure between 2007 and 2009. Furthermore, high-earning African-Americans were 80 percent more likely to lose their homes than their white counterparts. The devastation of black middle class enclaves like Prince George’s County, Maryland, due to home foreclosures was far more severe than that facing the white middle class.
The foreclosure crisis has had a domino effect on the financial health and prospects of the black middle class. The disparity between black and white net worth, driven largely by homeownership, exemplifies the differences between the experiences of the white middle class and their black counterparts. In 2011, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings compared to the paltry $7,113 for African-American families.
This disparity directly impacts the experiences of black college students. Black families are more likely to take on the burden of student loans to pay for college than white families. In 2013, 42 percent of black families carried student loan debt, compared to 28 percent of white families.
But even the successful completion of college is no guarantee that black graduates will be afforded the same opportunities as their white peers. As recently as 2013, among graduates aged 22 to 27, 12.4 percent of blacks were unemployed, compared to 4.9 percent of whites.
The anxieties spurred by the economic disparities between African-Americans and whites reflect the broader racial inequality that remains rife in our country. We are, after all, living through a moment in history when the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” which shouldn’t be controversial but apparently is for many whites, has captured the nation’s attention. The reason is simple: The phrase succinctly captures the perilousness of being black in the United States today.
African-American students face the same uncertain future currently experienced by their parents, compounded by the potential of harassment, violence or worse by police or others who inexplicably harbor anger and resentment toward black people. One look at the comments sections or social media reactions to any online article covering the student protests confirms this. Recently, just minutes after black students at Princeton reached an agreement with the school administration, they received a bomb threat.
Even as U.S. politicians panic over the recent attacks in Paris, the nation has quickly moved on from our own experience of terrorism not even six months ago. In Charleston, South Carolina, nine African-Americans were gunned down in church by the white supremacist Dylann Roof. More recently, on Nov. 23 three white men shot five Black Lives Matter activists at a protest in Minneapolis. This is the critical context for the much-mocked student demands for “safe space,” where differences of opinion or perspective are respected and not met with fury and the threat of violence.
All of these streams feed the river of anxiety, frustration and disappointment flowing through black students across the country. These students are not coddled or hypersensitive. Rather, they are grappling with the uncertainty and insecurity that accompanies much of black life in the United States today.
It is not surprising, then, that black college students are taking the lead from their brothers and sisters in the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore and many other cities. They are also expressing disappointment with Obama, who has waited until the twilight of his presidency to at least rhetorically challenge the rough racial terrain in the country. Besides Obama, there are more black members of Congress today than at any other point in American history, and yet race continues to set the parameters for the quality of one’s life in this country.
Black students do not get the luxury of avoiding this reality, whether on campus or off. The Black Lives Matter movement has arrived on campus because protests have proven to be the only way to move beyond static conversations and status quo policies in favor of the positive action necessary to confront the persistence of racial inequality throughout the nation.