comments_image Comments

Confronting Campus Racism

Racism is again in the spotlight at the University of Texas.

Photo Credit: Kushal Bose |


It's that time of year again, when college students pull all-nighters to finish research papers and cram for final exams. But at the University of Texas at Austin, the usual end-of-semester routine was upended by the racially charged comments of a campus professor.

Law professor Lino Graglia, apparently set off by a recent lawsuit accusing UT's affirmative action policy of "discrimination" against a white Texan, claimed that low academic performance among Blacks and Latinos is caused by being "raised by a single parent, usually female, uneducated and without a lot of money."

Graglia has a history of making racist statements. After a federal court ruled in 1997 against race-based admissions policies in Texas, Graglia said Blacks and Mexican-Americans "have a culture that seems not to encourage achievement" and that "failure is not looked upon with disgrace.''

Graglia's statements are worse than wrong--they end up providing a racist explanation, rooted in false ideas about "cultural inferiority," for unequal educational outcomes. In reality, those outcomes are plainly the consequence of the many social and material barriers Black and Brown people encounter in America.

During a recent BBC interview, Graglia expanded his recycling of racial stereotypes by latching on to the notion that racism is a thing of the past in a "post-racial" America. "Alright, so racial discrimination stopped, and what happened?" asked Graglia.

But the institutions and ideologies that uphold racial discrimination didn't disappear after the passage of civil rights legislation or the implementation of affirmative action. Indeed, racial discrimination persists--in the U.S. generally, and particularly on the 40-acre campus of the University of Texas.


At the beginning of the semester, students rallied against a disturbing rash of incidents in which bleach-filled water balloons were thrown at students of color. Many of these hate crimes took place in West Campus, the location of many fraternity and sorority houses that are disproportionately home to affluent white students.

It wasn't until students organized a 100-person protest in the area that the Austin Police Department and UT officials began to take the issue seriously. Students chanted "No more violence, no more silence" and "Don't you hate, don't you fear, people of color are welcome here" while they marched in the streets.

As awareness was building around the bleach-bombing incidents, some fraternities and sororities added to the climate of prejudice by hosting several "ethnic theme parties." The Alpha Tau Omega fraternity canceled its "Fiestau" after students learned it would feature a mock border crossing.

According to one of the event organizers: "We're going to put a river through [the party] and have like a border crossing, you know, like you walk over the river...We're going to have a Mexican side and a Texas side, with Mexican-themed drinks and then Texas-themed drinks."

Such comments reveal a disturbing level of ignorance about the gravity of the issues involved. The U.S.-Mexico border teems with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, the regular buzz of unmanned aerial drones and racist vigilantes--all directed at poor people fleeing a bleak economic landscape created in large part by the 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It's estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 people have died trying to cross the border since NAFTA's passage.

Enter the "ethnically themed party" with its distillation of a devastating political and social process into the backdrop for an orgy of binge drinking, and it's easy to see why so many students would take offense. While some white students might find it amusing to dress up in sombreros and fake mustaches for the night, most everyone else finds it insulting that there is such a lack of empathy for the countless human tragedies bound up with border enforcement.