In 2011, a sociology professor released a study on the campus climate at San Jose State University that noted problems with minorities feeling singled-out, isolated and discriminated against—sometimes even by faculty. The report’s author, Susan Murray, offered three recommendations: require diversity training for all staff and teachers, establish an office of campus diversity and incorporate diversity research into the tenure process.
Murray used the focus group interviews cited in her research to demonstrate the subtle and blatant discrimination some students face from the institution, their peers and authority figures. The school disregarded her direction.
But in the wake of a hate crime that allegedly unfolded over the course of a couple months last semester, the report takes on added significance. A task force convened to study the incidents leading up to those hate crimes spent two hours Friday night talking about Murray’s research and how the racial bullying that became national news last fall may have been symptomatic of an unhealthy campus climate.
San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP chapter president Rick Callender pointed to a passage in the study that talks about problems in the freshman dorms, the same place where the then-17-year-old victim reportedly endured weeks of physical and verbal abuse because of the color of his skin. In the report, another student from several years prior described his first-year living situation as hostile and intolerant.
“But my probably most unwelcoming experience was in the freshman dorm housing,” he told a focus group. “There is very little sensitivity put in by the housing services to really make sure that you’re comfortable with who your roommates are, in my opinion. And to make sure that lifestyles are met. And this goes beyond the LGBT experience, I believe. I had roommates that were literally racist and used the N-word as well as the F-word (fag) and it was just a very difficult experience.”
Perhaps more surprising, however, were the day-to-day microagressions students reported from teachers and staff.
“The system is trying to weed out a lot of I guess, minorities or people that they would suspect wouldn’t do as well in the—in the university system,” one student in the study said. “I was talking with an advisor in [one department], and he mentioned something about certain faculty expecting black students to fail.”
Other teachers would single out black students by asking them to make statements on behalf of other African Americans, according to some students.
“There’s been several instances in my classes where the professor would, give an example of something that’s kind of like, stereotypically black and they would call like, ‘Oh, [student’s name], do you?,’” one student athlete said. “Like, am I the only black person? But I don’t speak for everybody. So yeah, I’ve had that type of example, where I guess I’ve been looked upon for answers for our culture.”
Conversely, other black students felt ignored.
“The [name of discipline] teachers, especially the older ones, and, I mean white ones, are known to be racist toward minority students that are in their classes,” one student said. “And I didn’t really believe that it was true. And so, a few weeks ago, I was in—I don’t really know if this is why it happened, but I’m just guessing—I was in lecture. And it’s a pretty big lecture. And I had a question, I raised my hand, and my hand was clearly up, the only hand clearly up for a good five minutes, because I was kind of being stubborn, like you see my hand, you’re gonna call on me kind of thing. And I would not get called on. But then somebody else raised their hand up a different, like a white person, and they got called on, like, instantly. And so, I was very upset about that.”
Gay and transgender students of color said they saw a lot of heterosexism from the school in a lack of resources and with certain assumptions made as an institution.
“Actually, when you fill out the housing application and there is one line and it literally says, ‘Do you have any homosexuality issues?’” a gay student told the focus group. “That is the exact phrasing. ‘Do you have any homosexuality issues?’ And I was in counseling at the time, and I asked my friend who knew I was gay, and I was like, ‘Do I say that I have any homosexuality issues?’ And she was like, ‘What does that even mean?’ What do you write?”
“Really? It says that?” a lesbian student asked.
“Yeah, that was in there,” the other replied. “It was like, ‘Do you have any homosexuality issues?’ I’m like, ‘No, but I am one.’”
Murray said the problems noted in her study aren’t uncommon.
“The experiences of the students and the staff and the faculty in these reports are not unique to San Jose State,” she said. “These things are happening in every university and other places across the country.”
Murray said she hopes that with national focus trained on San Jose State, the school will step up and educate the people who work there about how to interact with a diverse student body. Diversity training, she said, has to come from the top down, starting with the people on staff since they’re there for years while students come and go.
“It has to be part of our contract,” she said. “If it was very explicitly written into the things we’re required to do as a faculty, I think that might go a long way in starting to see participation in these things.”
Stephanie Tang, an activist and writer, said the hate crimes that landed national headlines last fall is part of a widespread problem, perhaps a growing one.
“This hideous incident is so much bigger than what happened at this one campus,” she told the task force during the public comment period. “The incident here has ramifications … at another school, someone hung a confederate flag and a noose. … We’re hearing more and more these types of things happening on other campuses. The Zimmerman verdict put on a green light for the white racists … tens of millions of them, who think that their insecurities about the future can be taken out on others.”