As I See It: Taking a hard look at systemic racism in higher education

Originally published in the Worcester Telegram

By President Luis Pedraja

This has been a difficult time in our nation’s history as we deal with two plagues that threaten our community and world. The first is the COVID-19 pandemic; the second is systemic racism. Both are insidious and rob us of life. In some ways, the pandemic has highlighted the racial and economic inequities in our nation.

We’ve certainly learned quite a bit about our nation in these past few months, which tells a disturbing story of our failure as a society to confront racism and systemic structures of oppression. Access to health care, economic resources, technology and education is not equitable in our society. This is evident in disproportionately higher mortality rates for minorities, who often work in high-risk jobs, lack access to quality health care, and do not have the necessary resources to work remotely. College students, especially low-income and underrepresented minorities, already vulnerable before the pandemic, are at a greater risk due to these equity gaps.

Advocating for social justice and equity are part of my DNA. I cannot stay silent in the face of injustice — how can any of us? Silence is complicity. When we subject others to unjust treatment and violence, it diminishes our own humanity.

Racism has plagued education in our country for centuries. It was illegal to teach slaves to read or write. Redlining, segregation, and similar discriminatory policies not only prevented equitable access to property and education, but also led to the underfunding of schools that served their communities. Throughout the years, these policies have increased the equity gap. Today, educational disparities still exist. There are disproportionate disciplinary actions taken against students of color, a lack of equitable access to resources in inner city schools, the labeling of children as “at risk,” performance based funding, and standardized testing. This further adds to the divide by creating artificial barriers that disproportionately have a negative impact on the poor and underserved minority communities.

As a society, we cannot endure unless we confront these and take decisive action.

Today, historic racial discrimination still has lasting consequences, and its effect continues to impede some students from continuing to higher education. While community colleges work to combat this, they are not immune to the systemic structures of oppression and racism that plague our country. Yet, they have democratized education by making it more accessible to people barred from education, the poor, the underserved, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities. Additionally, while community colleges enroll half of all undergraduates in the United States and by far serve a greater number of underrepresented students of color (35%) than any other sector in higher education, they still receive the lowest level of federal and state funding per student.

Society cannot change unless we are willing to change, and change starts at home. I believe as an educational institution, we must lead the way in self-examination in order to effect change. The inequity we see in our higher education system must now, and forever, be banished. At QCC, we advocate for open and accessible education for all. We are inclusionary for all students, not exclusive for the privileged. Almost half of our students are students of color. Our classrooms are a rainbow of humanity, where people come not just to learn, but to dream of a better future.

However, a recent survey of our students’ ability to cope with the pandemic showed that over half often worry about paying bills and that at least one third of our students frequently worry about having enough to eat, a place to sleep, or access to the necessary technology to succeed. We have been finding ways to address these needs, keeping our food pantry and resource center available, offering comprehensive remote support services, and raising over $105,000 for a Student Emergency Fund to assist students with immediate life and educational needs. While this is making a difference, I fear that these numbers fall short of the true magnitude of the challenges our students face, and there is much more we must do.

We are not alone in these concerns. The cost of education, institutionalized biases, and artificial barriers prevent many students across our nation from gaining access to the education that will prepare them to seek gainful employment and succeed. We must do more. No stone should be left unturned and no conversation, no matter how difficult, should go unspoken in our collective quest for equity.

Equity agendas must go beyond police reform and must extend to all sectors of society. We cannot endure unless we confront the difficult challenges before us and take definitive action. We must be disrupters of systemic racism and recognize that there is no place in our society for implicit bias. The world is changing and education needs to be the driving force to make sure that it changes for the better. The time is now.

Luis G. Pedraja is president of Quinsigamond Community College.

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