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.

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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."

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