UCLA’s “Dream Variations”
One of my favorite poems is Langston Hughes’s “Dream Variations.” Whenever I read it I imagine a little Black boy twirling around in the white heat of the day, but welcoming the coming of evening. The famous closing lines of this poem, ”Night coming tenderly/Black like me,” always conjure up for me images of the velvet darkness wrapping itself around him like a soft and familiar blanket.
Unfortunately, incoming Black freshman at UCLA will not find very much of that cherished and familiar Blackness among their classmates. June 2006 numbers indicated that this fall’s entering class would include only about 100 Black students, or about 2% of the entering freshmen. Not surprisingly, UCLA has made an effort in its newest admissions publications to present a more welcoming face to prospective Black applicants.
I applaud this effort, as well as the UC system’s desire to increase its Black population, despite the California electorate’s rejection of certain types of affirmative action practices. But I can’t really say that I wish UCLA any success in this effort. Black students are more than simply numbers. They are individuals with dreams, aptitude, and great potential for high achievement, but who also bring with them expectations for community, safety, comfort, and respect in the classroom, in the dorms, and in every other aspect of campus life. In terms of these latter concerns, I wonder what UCLA has to offer Black students.
In the post Prop 209 era UCLA finds itself competing for outstanding African American students, not only with UC Berkeley, but also with Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Brown, Williams, Oberlin, the University of Michigan and several other private and public highly selective institutions that, quite frankly, have done a much better job of creating a positive, welcoming, and supportive community for their Black undergraduates. Several of these institutions already have a critical mass of African American students whose presence and participation build and support Black student organizations, social events, outreach programs, and even religious services, all of which contribute significantly to student satisfaction, retention, and–eventually–robust graduation rates.
In many ways I am stating the obvious, but I suppose this particular blog entry reflects my surprise at the conclusions I have drawn. After having spent time on a number of college campuses, including some that have extremely low Black student numbers and percentages, I’ve truly begun to consider the toll on individual African American students of such institutions’ efforts to raise their Black undergraduate numbers. I have seen far too many young African Americans arrive on campuses where Black students make up 2% or less of the overall undergaduate population, only to transfer out 1 or 2 years later, often to HBCUs, east-coast colleges, or southern universities with considerably larger Black numbers…but not before alienation and racism (albeit often inadvertant and ignorance-based ) have left them cynical about the place of Blackness in U.S. higher education.
It would be wonderful if UCLA and other campuses with similarly low numbers of African American students could rapidly quadruple their numbers of Black undergrads. Past history, however, suggests that these types of changes happen slowly. And with colleges like Yale, Mills, Brown, Emory, Spelman, Morehouse and others providing high quality undergraduate experiences for Black students both inside and outside of the classroom, I am starting to believe that UCLA and other institutions with similarly low African American numbers gain a lot more from the enrollment of their handful of Black students than do the Black students themselves.
You can read more about UCLA’s efforts to appear more welcoming to Black prospective students at this link: LA Times Article on Black Student Recruitment Efforts at UCLA
Posted by Ajuan Mance