The Historical and Contemporary Black Student Experience at Primarily White Institutions

Department of Archives & Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University

Since the beginning of higher education, colleges and universities have functioned as gatekeepers of knowledge. Aside from the many issues with classism and inaccessibility perpetuated by the systemic oppression that the academy intentionally creates, these institutions have also functioned to exclude students of color from the academic process. Specifically, black students are targeted and systemically left out of colleges and universities, and even after these institutions were forced to integrate, black students faced isolation and racism from their white peers. Black students at Primarily White Institutions today experience a difficult reality shaped by a history of isolation and discriminatory policies in a sharp contrast to the idealized version of inclusive and color blind American college campuses. 

In order to understand the current climate for black students at LMU and at other primarily white institutions, it is necessary to understand the context in which the Black Student Union and other black serving organizations at LMU were formed. The BSU at LMU was formed in 1968 and officially recognized in the winter of 1968 and going into 1969. Notably, the formation of the BSU happened at LMU in the context of the civil rights movement. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation, was passed. Just five days later, the Watts uprisings in Los Angeles exploded. Racial tensions across the country were concentrated in the urban center that was LA, this translated to LMU student life. It was clear that ”despite its image as a racial oasis, civil rights were as real an issue for Black Los Angeles as they were for the blacks elsewhere in America” (Cole, 79). A racially divided country translated into tensions on campus that made the black experience more difficult.

However, even after the Watts uprisings, black student enrollment at LMU continued to increase. This was in part due to the rising of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 70s. This was also heavily responsible for the formation of the BSU. Leaders of the Black Power movement encouraged students to stick together with their black peers and preached black self-love. Black students in Los Angeles were quickly realizing they did not want to be equal with black students around the country, but with white students in Los Angeles. The Black Student Union was founded in 1968 to address these issues. Additionally, the Office of Black Student Services (OBSS) and the Department of African American Studies were both established in 1970. These organizations were formed with the intention of addressing the needs of black students in an institution that seemed to only serve its white students. The success of these organization in improving the lived black experience at LMU versus only addressing the academic concerns of students is up for debate.

The formation of the BSU and the OBSS at LMU was part of a larger, nation-wide Black Campus movement, which was strongest at LMU from 1968 through 1978. The Black Campus movement intended to make black students heard and cared for within white institutions. Additonally, “the BSU sought to provide Black students with an organization that would address their academic, social, cultural, and political well-being.” (Claybrook, 6). Black students were only a tiny percentage of the LMU student body and had no cultural organizations before this one. It was intended to combat the isolation of black students on campus, and to a certain extent, it was successful. For instance, the establishment of Black Culture Week in the 1970s showed a gradual move toward celebrating the cultures and contributions of black students. In 1974, the year the photograph above was taken, Black Culture Week made headlines because it brought Black Panther Bobby Seale to campus (Allison). Black Studies conferences also began at LMU in the 1980s with the purpose of protecting the LMU African American Studies department and nationally expanding Black Studies at other institutions (LA Sentinel). The enrollment of black students was also increasing as a result of events like these that made LMU a more appealing and welcoming place for black students. This shows the Black Student Union having some success in forcing the administration to recognize the needs of its black students, but issues continued to persist. The BSU could force academic equality, but social barriers continued to exist for black students. While academic needs were being addressed, black students struggled with isolation from their peers, and racism was still alive and well at LMU, as it was at all Primarily White Institutions.

The lived realities of black students at primarily white institutions, beginning generations ago and continuing to present day, stand in contrast to the legal and policy-based progress that colleges and universities seemingly experienced. Institutions can be forced to address gaping holes in policy-based equality, but until the social and cultural inequities at these institutions are addressed, true equality is not present. In the 1950s and 1960s at universities across the country, these was a common theme of administrations implementing blanket bans on student protests and activism. These were often aimed at black student activists and are some of the early examples of attempts to silence black voices in higher education. A 1968 Loyolan article about race shows that based on responses from students, racist attitudes and a distaste for black student presence was still prevalent. The LMU administration did little to address this. The attitude of the LMU administration, mirrored by institutions across the country, seemed to be that after the integration of the university, the community moved directly into a post-racial era. There was and still is an air of apathy around addressing issues of race. Enrollment was not even recorded by race until 1972, which shows how the issue was ignored.

No matter how hard the students fought for their full equality, it was “the administration and other university officials who decided what and how that change would occur” (Claybrook, 15). While academically and legally things have progressed for black students, the culture of racism and discrimination that persists can really only be addressed by the administration. Today, not only has menial social and cultural progress been made for black students, but “similar to the 1960s, several state lawmakers, governors, and as of January 2017, the president of the United States, are offering legislation at the state and federal level that attacks the inclusivity espoused by many college presidents” (Cole, 88). Progress has slowed to a stop and at times appears to be moving backward in an extremely politically divided country with a government administration that works against the interests of citizens of color. Black students on primarily white campuses today face the same issues they have been facing since day one. In fact, with government officials who empower and validate racist attitudes under the facade of “color-blindness,” the situation for black students is likely worse today.

The importance of a sense of community and the detriments of not feeling included on campus extend past the principled reasons to have diversity and inclusion in colleges. It is about more than just diversity for the sake of looking good or inclusion for the sake of inclusion. Black students desperately need to have a community, especially at primary white institutions, because it gives them a space to share and relate to the experiences of others, essentially offering a buffer from the everyday racism they experience. Still, today, ”Black college students have reported feeling socially isolated, experience numerous racial microaggressions, and encounter multiple stereotypes at predominantly White universities” (Hunter, Case, and Harvey, 950). The issue is that these institutions have been established and built upon elitist, white academic ideals, and black students do not fit into this image. To exist within this system is a constant struggle for black students. The relevance here is that being able to find a community and identify with a racial group leads to “well-being outcomes such as self-esteem, coping, low levels of acculturative stress, and academic performance” (Hunter, Case, and Harvey, 952). A sense of belonging on campus also directly affects a student’s willingness and motivation to pursue graduating. Essentially, this issue is important because isolation and the culture of discrimination that exists at primarily white institutions is a direct detriment to black student performance.

At LMU today, the student body is only about seven percent black. This institution is not offering black students the community they need. Black students are isolated at LMU, despite the racially diverse utopia that this school advertises. LMU is not unique in this respect. Primarily white universities and colleges across the country are all guilty of this. It is time people understand just how damaging this is and how promoting this narrative erases the experiences of black students, directly contributing to them having a more negative college experience and lowering their academic performance.

Written by Lila Roades, History, LMU 2022

For Further Reading:

Primary Sources 

Allison, Bob. “EDUCATIONAL OUTLOOK: LOYOLA MARYMOUNT.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005),May 16, 1974.

Black Student Association, Photograph, 1974, Prints 07E05BW, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA. 

“Loyola Sets Black Studies Conference.” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005),Jan 19, 1984.

Secondary Sources

“Black College Students’ Sense of Belonging and Racial Identity.” International Journal of Inclusive Education23, no. 9 (September 2019): 950–66. doi:10.1080/13603116.2019.1602363.

Claybrook, M. Keith, Jr. “Black Power, Black Students, and the Institutionalizing of Change: Loyola Marymount University, 1968-1978.” Journal of Pan African Studies, no. 10 (2013): 1.

Cole, Eddie R. “College Presidents and Black Student Protests: A Historical Perspective on the Image of Racial Inclusion and the Reality of Exclusion.” Peabody Journal of Education93, no. 1 (January 1, 2018): 78–89.

Hunter, Carla, Andrew Case, and Shevon Harvey. “Black college students’ sense of belonging and racial identity.” International Journal of Inclusive Education, 2019.