Why Black Students Are Avoiding UC Berkeley 

In the post-Prop 209 era, nearly 60 percent of African-American students accepted at Cal are choosing to attend other colleges — often, because they feel unwelcome.


In 1997, the year after California voters approved Proposition 209, which prohibited the consideration of race or ethnicity in the operation of state institutions, black students made up 8 percent of UC Berkeley's freshmen enrollment — roughly the same percentage of African Americans living in the state. The following year, the percentage of black freshmen at Cal plummeted by more than half, and has hovered at or below 4 percent ever since. It averaged 3.6 percent in the five-year period between 2006 and 2010.

"On the campus website, more often than not, you'll often find a black face representing some program or other," said American Studies senior Salih Muhammad of Oakland. Muhammad is the former chair of Berkeley's Black Student Union and currently chair of the statewide UC African-American Coalition. "But when it comes to walking around the campus, those black faces are few and far between. Or, you'll see the 'I Support Berkeley' banners on campus, with all these black faces on them, but there are more black faces on the banners than there are in many of the classes."

In fact, some students in Cal's science and technology departments — where black students are least represented — said they can go an entire day without seeing another African American.

Yet despite widely held (and stereotype-driven) beliefs about why there are so few black students at Cal, the low enrollment numbers have nothing to do to with a lack of qualified African-American student applicants. Instead, many black students are deciding not to attend UC Berkeley. According to the latest figures available from the University of California, nearly 58 percent of black students who were admitted to Cal between 2006 and 2010 ultimately chose to go to college elsewhere. In all, 885 of the 1,539 African-American students admitted to UC Berkeley during that time period decided to turn down the university's acceptance letters.

According to interviews with current and former students, administrators, and counselors, there are numerous reasons why so many qualified black students have chosen to avoid Cal in the post-affirmative action era. But perhaps the most important one is that many black students say they don't feel comfortable or wanted at Berkeley at a time when a large number of other top universities are actively recruiting African Americans and welcoming them with open arms.

"I have friends that are extremely successful, that were extremely bright, and a lot of them went to Yale and Harvard and Columbia and Stanford," said Nile Taylor of Oakland. Taylor is a 2005 UC Berkeley graduate in political science, legal studies, and theater. "You have some top universities that are competing with Berkeley that these students have the option of attending. So why would you choose to come to Berkeley in a semi-hostile environment when you can go to a campus like Stanford who says, 'Come on! We love you! We want you here!' and that offers them added support as an African-American student?"

Moreover, a significant percentage of black students at UC Berkeley hold a dim view of life on campus. In last year's UC Undergraduate Experience Survey, only 57 percent of Berkeley's African-American students said they agreed with the statement "students of my group are respected at this campus." The university's own analysis called this result "the lowest feelings of respect" of all student groups. The low ranking also remained steady between 2008 and 2011, with African-American students' feeling of respect on campus scoring 20 percentage points below that of the next-highest student category, Chicano/Latinos, and 25 percentage points below gays and lesbians.

Some UC administrators and many students say that Berkeley will continue to feel inhospitable to African Americans until Cal can boost admissions to reach a so-called "critical mass" of black students on campus. Gibor Basri, UC Berkeley's vice chancellor for Equity & Inclusion, has been advocating for the creation of new financial scholarship and aid programs at Cal, designed specifically to attract African-American students, while others associated with the Berkeley campus believe the answer lies with the university giving better support and funding to the diversity programs already in place.

The problem of low black-student enrollment also is not confined to the Berkeley campus; it's considered by UC officials to be a statewide issue. Just last week, new University of California President Janet Napolitano said at Oakland Technical High School that her office would be initiating a new push to enroll more ethnic minority students into the UC system. "I'm not sure our doors are open wide enough," the Bay Area News Group quoted Napolitano as saying. She added, "We're going to do more of that while I am president."

But there is little doubt that if university officials fail to implement such reforms, then UC Berkeley — widely regarded as one of the most progressive campuses in the nation — will continue to feel unwelcome to many high-achieving black students.

"The number one reason that I hear" from black high school seniors opting out of a Cal Berkeley acceptance "is that they picked a historically black college" instead, said Oakland Tech's Marsha Rhynes, a longtime high school English teacher in the Oakland public schools. "The top black kids at Castlemont last year, almost all of them, picked [historically black colleges or universities]. That was a choice. They were admitted to one of the UCs. But they wanted a smaller, nurturing environment."

Rhynes, who is African American, is well qualified to understand the problems of black students at Cal. Both she and her daughter are UC Berkeley graduates. In addition, Rhynes has served as an admissions reader for Berkeley — one of a group of local educators selected to read student admissions applications and make acceptance recommendations to the university. Rhynes has also served as a de facto college admissions counselor at both McClymonds and Castlemont, the two largely black Oakland high schools she worked at for several decades before transferring to Tech this year.

Rhynes said that many black students also decide not to attend Cal because the school has rejected numerous high-achieving black student applicants over the years. "When your top kids apply to Berkeley and they don't get in, it sends a message to the others," discouraging them from accepting placement at Cal or even applying, she said.

Rhynes added that while she thinks black high school student opinion about UC Berkeley may be improving, she said, "There is a sense of isolation at Cal from African-American students who are attending that campus that gets articulated to students who are applying to Berkeley."

Basri, UC Berkeley's vice chancellor for Equity & Inclusion, said the low opinion that black students already enrolled at Cal have of the university is "an ongoing disappointment and a call for action — a disappointment for the university and for the students."

But he said he understands the reasons for the students' attitudes. "Not feeling respected has to do with inclusion in part," Basri explained. "And so if you're the only person in your class that's African American, for example, it's going to be hard to feel comfortable. The same is true in the faculty arena. A lot of the departments don't have any African-American faculty. If they do, then it could be one or two people, except in certain arenas where people are concentrated and the students are also concentrated in certain kinds of majors and kind of absent from the broader spectrum of what's offered here. So it's a combination of not having enough folks around and also the uncomfortableness that comes when people intentionally — or usually unintentionally — do something that makes you feel more uncomfortable. That's the issue."

What Basri diplomatically calls "do[ing] something that makes [black students] feel more uncomfortable" is more often referred to by another term by the students themselves. While Cal still maintains a well-deserved national reputation for progressive activism, many African-American students complain of a lingering undercurrent of anti-black racism on campus.

Several students interviewed for this story pointed to two of the most widely publicized recent incidents of anti-black hostility at Berkeley: last year's infamous mock lynching, in which Theta Delta Chi hung a figure of a zombie (or a figure of a black person, depending on whom you ask) from the window of its frat house across from a dorm full of black freshmen as part of a Halloween haunted house party, and the 2011 Berkeley College Republicans-sponsored mock "Diversity Bake Sale," in which white students had to pay top price for pastries while African-Americans and Latinos were offered steep discounts.

Several students also reported instances of anti-black racism at Cal that didn't make the news, isolated incidents of being called "nigger" by white students while walking across campus, or what can only be described as racially insensitive statements by some white professors. "Things like that, when I feel like I'm confronted with a lot of those kind of comments and stereotypes from different people on campus, it just makes it feel like black students must not be respected at Cal," said economics major Evan Bell, who is African American.

Some of this lack of respect for black students — in some circles, at least — appears to come from an assumption that African Americans got into Cal for some reason other than academic qualifications, even though it's been a full sixteen years since the passage of Proposition 209 ended affirmative-action admissions. And some black students — because of the false assumptions made about them — feel as if they have to provide extra proof that they have the skills to compete at the school.

According to Nzingah Dugas, director of Cal's African American Student Development office, these false assumptions about black students are more than inconveniences. They can impact black students' ability to complete their coursework. "A black student might be in a science course," Dugas explained, "and the professor says, 'Okay, everybody has to have a study group.' Nobody picks them for a study group. They first have to show that they can get an A before they get selected."

Student activists and university officials alike said these problems could be solved by bringing in a larger percentage of the qualified black high school student talent pool to Berkeley. To accomplish this, they talk of the need for creating what both sides call a "critical mass" of black presence on campus — a sort of tipping point, in which the image of UC Berkeley would switch from being indifferent to friendly to black students.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the University of Texas affirmative action case that came before the US Supreme Court this year, the UC president and campus chancellors argued that "whether a given institution is able to achieve a 'critical mass' of underrepresented minority students has a direct relationship to whether the campus enjoys a healthy racial climate," adding that "where critical mass is not achieved, the campus racial climate is likely to be significantly less hospitable to minorities."

But how many African-American students would it take to reach such a critical mass? Noting that close to three-quarters of UC Berkeley's Chicano-Latino students feel respected on campus with a population of some 15 percent of the university, Vice Chancellor Basri said that "if the number of African-American students were doubled [from the 3.5 percent enrollment figure in the fall of 2011] they would perhaps move into that realm of comfortableness instead of where they are right now. So critical mass for African-American students at UC Berkeley might be 2,000 students, or something like that."

That would put African-American enrollment on campus well above its highest number of 1,363 in 1998, when the last of the pre-Prop 209 student population was still present.

Basri argues that "the most quick and effective way" to convince more black students to attend Cal and allow the campus to reach critical mass is through "more financial aid. A lot of those students who are qualified to come to Berkeley are also qualified to go to Stanford and Harvard and so on. And those institutions have a tendency to offer more financial aid." In many instances, in fact, it can be cheaper for students to attend private institutions like Stanford or Harvard than public universities because of the financial aid those colleges provide.

Basri said that another way to increase the numbers of African Americans on campus is to create a scholarship program targeting those students, something he said is already in the works. "It's not illegal [under Prop 209] to have a scholarship program that is targeted at a given race so long as the overall financial aid situation is not preferential," the vice chancellor said, adding that an alternative approach would be to turn to private foundations to run the black scholarship program "outside of university purview. The best solution would be to establish an endowment from which could be spun off enough scholarship money so that we could augment CalGrants and so on for African-American students by three or four thousand dollars a year for fifty or a hundred students. That would probably do it."

Others concerned about the low numbers of African-American students at Cal believe that some of the solutions to the problem are already in place, and only need greater backing from the university. Almost all the African-American students interviewed for this article feel that two existing Berkeley programs have to be both maintained and significantly strengthened: the African American Student Development Office (AASD) and the Black Recruitment and Retention Center (BRRC).

The AASD is situated in a tiny room in the Cesar Chavez Student Center, but its importance to black students on the Cal campus cannot be overstated.

"At most, probably eight students can fit in there at one time," said Naomi Wilson, who worked as a freshmen counselor at AASD. "All of them going into this one little cubicle of a room trying to get advice on academics ... trying to get advice on life, trying to get personal advice, spiritual advice. That is our cultural center. That is our psychology center. We go there for all of our needs."

Wilson added that some of the non-African-American-specific programs on campus "are welcoming, like, 'You can come in here, it's fine if you come in here,' but the African-American Student Development office, the culture in there says, 'You're supposed to be here. You belong here. We want you here.' [It's] inviting in such a way that allows to take pride, again, like this whole notion of pride and ownership over a space."

AASD was the first of Berkeley's multicultural student development centers, created by black students in 1989 because of the high dropout rate in their ranks at the time — which was above 50 percent. Twenty-five years later, African-American students at Berkeley have a retention rate in the mid-70th percentile. AASD plays a large part in that dramatically increased black student retention, students say.

"There were times when I wanted to drop out of Berkeley, myself, for personal reasons," Wilson said. "But then talking to Nzingah [Dugas], I kind of knew that I had to be here, not just for myself and my family but for my community as well. Miss Nzingah is like the guidance counselor for the whole Cal black community, I swear. Everybody goes to her for all their issues, from personal life to academics to issues with students or issues with their professors."

Dugas explained that her office has two focal areas: "academic retention which focuses on academic support and development, and then social and cultural retention, that focuses on leadership development, cultural awareness, support for one's identity and experiences.

"All the research says when a person feels like he or she belongs, has a proper support, and their cultural identity is respected, the more likely they are to stay," she continued. "There are a few more things like financial resources, but those are the things that keep students here."

The number of students served by AASD is impossible to determine, as services by the office can range from direct intake work to students using the office as a check-in point to find out about various campus activities. Everyone interviewed for this article agreed, however, that the space provided in the AASD office is not large enough to accommodate the numbers of students who sometimes assemble there. "A lot of office hours in that space where students are there to build community," Dugas said. "Part of building community is to be in a space, to be able to network, to fellowship. And there's not a lot of black spaces. There's not centers and spaces where black students can just go and be together and network and get to know each other. So the office serves as a hub. It's not big enough. Sometimes I just have to remove myself so they can have that space. Because really, that's my office, but it's become more like a safe community space."

While AASD has eight student workers, Dugas is the only professional staff member — not nearly enough for the program's needs and scope of operation.

Adding more staff members and putting them in a larger AASD space also could go a long way toward helping retain the African-American students already at Cal, as well as giving them reason and ammunition to be word-of-mouth recruiters for more black students. Meanwhile, finding more ways to support the student-run Black Recruitment and Retention Center could be a direct benefit to increasing the number of African-American Cal applicants.

Funded partly through the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), the Black Recruitment and Retention Center runs a year-round recruitment program for African-American students in high schools throughout the state, as well as operating social activities for those same students once they enroll at Cal.

Cal undergrad Destiny Iuwoma, BRRC's Northern California coordinator, said "there are students on campus who are literally hungry to recruit black students" to Berkeley, "but Cal has to show that it both wants that recruitment and wants more black students.

"I think one of the problems is the university doesn't believe it benefits by having more black students here who are not athletes," Iuwoma continued, adding that while the campus admissions office is "cordial" to the BRRC efforts, more than that is needed. "I feel like a better relationship needs to happen," he said. "They know we do recruitment. They know we go to high schools. They give us materials. But I want to hear from their mouths that they actually want more black students here, and this is what we can do to get them here. The university has money, and the students have the stories and the personal relationships with the students and the high schools. If I work with a group of students that I can tell what they need to get into the university and the university is backing me on this, and I have clout and I can say, 'If you do the work and meet the qualifications, I can help get you into UC Berkeley,' then I can actually advocate for these students. I can get students into Berkeley. But I need the administration to work with me on that. It needs to be a cooperative effort."

Iuwoma said that the university admissions office "should be building a pipeline to certain schools" in order to increase the pool of qualified black students applying, being admitted to, and succeeding at Cal. "What I would do is have UC Berkeley have some type of partnership with some of these schools that would groom students to compete and be eligible for UC. And we should be doing it at the freshman, sophomore, and junior level. Most of the time we're targeting seniors, and by that time, it's too late for them to prepare themselves."

Earlier this year, in its ruling on the questions of race in admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, the US Supreme Court established a slightly higher hurdle for college affirmative action programs to reach in order to improve diversity at their schools. And this fall, the court heard arguments concerning Michigan's anti-affirmative action law, which closely resembles California's Prop 209. The high court is expected to rule on that case next June, with most legal observers believing that it will most likely further tighten restrictions on affirmative action programs.

Yet surprisingly, some African Americans associated with UC Berkeley are perfectly fine with that, as well as with the widespread assumption that affirmative action is unlikely to return to California colleges and schools.

"I got into Berkeley on my own," said Nile Taylor, who entered Cal three years after the ban on affirmative action began. "I didn't get in because they had to meet a quota. I got in because my application was good enough to get into Berkeley. Part of the stigma of people who get in under affirmative action is one, they only got in because of affirmative action — that they're not considered to be good enough otherwise — and two, I think affirmative action is a Band-Aid. I don't think it's a solution."

Disclosure: Nile Taylor is the daughter of the author of this article.

Correction: The original version of this report misstated the name of the UC Berkeley campus survey that found that a substantial percentage of black students at Cal hold a dim view of the campus. It was the UC Undergraduate Experience Survey -- not the University of California Campus Climate Survey.

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