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UCLA's Black Shadow

Graduation day at UCLA and, as usual, I’ve managed to get myself lost on this beautiful and gigantic campus, which today is festooned in blue-and-yellow balloons and populated with countless grads in caps and gowns as far as I can see. But I can tell at a glance that these are not the students I need to find. I’m looking for that spot of blackness at a university where blackness is rare and getting rarer. Then, as I rush past yet another cluster of happy grads and their parents, I see a small group of African-American folks descending stairs. I follow them, and soon I’m where I belong — among a hundred or so black people and a handful of whites attending the Afro-American Studies Interdepartmental Program graduation to see just 27 students receive their degrees. The ceremony turns out to be more poignant and compelling than I could have imagined. This should be a purely festive day: The editor of the Los Angeles Times, Dean Baquet, gives an entertaining and thoughtful keynote speech on the value of doing work you love, and the grads are eager to receive their new degrees. But Baquet’s words are overshadowed by the deep anger and disappointment among many here today over the recent news that only 2 percent of UCLA’s incoming freshman class — just 96 students — will be African-American.

“Those who bring up declining black enrollment are called racist,” Dr. Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, tells the crowd.

“Black people will not disappear from this campus,” insists Dr. Brenda Stevenson, chair of the Afro-American Studies Program.

Since the news broke that blacks either aren’t welcome, or are choosing to avoid UCLA as if Ward Connerly runs the place, I’ve been made aware of how my students, who are largely African-American, handle being such a tiny fraction of the ethnic quilt of UCLA — an institution that graduated Tom Bradley and Jackie Robinson but can’t attract or won’t admit more than a handful of African-American students.

For me, it’s really not that different from how it was in 1976, when I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara. The campus was overwhelmingly white, and being around whites was so strange for me at the time that I didn’t understand why all the white girls sat out in the hot sun, tanning. I thought maybe they wanted me to gawk at them, but I soon got the message that my behavior was uncouth. Still, I didn’t feel too out of place at UCSB, because during my first year I was with mostly black and Latino students in the Educational Opportunity Program. We had enough density of color that we didn’t feel totally exposed, so maybe the transition of going from an all-minority high school to an overwhelmingly white campus was smoothed a bit. Thirty years later, if I’m not in the classroom, I don’t expect to see many blacks or Latinos on campus, and when I do, I’m mildly surprised. There’s something unsettling about how I’ve come to accept that fact.

I have strong ties to UCLA; I’ve taught “Creative Nonfiction” in the school’s Center for African American Studies for the last six years. My wife’s father and mother attended UCLA, and her dad graduated with a degree in engineering in the late ’40s. Today I’ve brought my 12-year-old daughter, Giselle, to the Afro-Am graduation so she can see me in a cap and gown, and maybe get the idea that she should be preparing herself to attend UCLA. But at this point I can’t be totally over the top in encouraging her to attend a campus where she really would be a superminority, a blip on the statistical radar. My wife grew up like that, attending mostly white and affluent schools. She pointed out on more than one occasion that being one of the few black folks on a huge campus isn’t exactly an inviting prospect. I brought up the subject in my class and asked my students to write about what it feels like being that rare black student at UCLA.

One student wrote: “In my personal experience I found UCLA to be a stark contrast to what I expected. I wanted to attend UCLA since middle school and when I walked onto campus for the first time, I thought it would be this awesome experience. I expected to be welcomed into the college experience with students and faculty who are open to diversity and learning from others’ culture. But after having two roommates move out because they were ‘uncomfortable’ having a black roommate, I recognized what the trend was going to be.”

Another student complained about feeling uncomfortable about being the only black in a large lecture hall: “For example, when I am in a classroom and I am the only face of color, it tends to make me feel like an outsider and I often experience one of two feelings. Either I am timid and afraid to voice my opinion because I feel as though it is not relevant to my surroundings, or I feel a pressure and I feel forced to voice my opinion because I am the only person of color in the room. Either way, I am not given the same comfortable environment as my peers and it does have a psychological effect on me as well as my education.”

That’s a considerable burden to carry for a young woman trying to navigate her way to a degree, but that’s the deal. A great education can be had at UCLA, but a great education can be had at USC or Occidental College, and maybe you won’t have to feel as though you’re an education pioneer, integrating your organic-chemistry class or your American-literature course. Even within the UC system there are differences in admissions, and some campuses are aggressively addressing the problem: UC Riverside and UC Berkeley have increased their black and Latino freshman numbers using more holistic evaluations of applicants. Something needs to be done; otherwise, kids like my daughter probably won’t have UCLA as their first choice for college, and that’ll be a shame. Although, as we head to our car after the graduation ceremony, I realize she may have already made her own decision on the subject.

“What do you think about UCLA?” I ask.

“I think I’d like to go to a smaller school,” Giselle tells me. “I’d get lost at UCLA.”