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Campus Climate and Racial Justice: The Need for Restorative Justice

Image Via USA Today

By TJ Grayson

There is a clear miscommunication between the needs of students and the environments in which they are expected to thrive and succeed. While students of color, including those at UC Berkeley, have known this for years, recent events surrounding the relationship between race, cultural appropriation and the on-campus experience have propelled this subject into the national discourse. Although not all students of color face campuses as hostile as schools like Mizzou and Howard University–where Black students have been forced to choose between expanding their knowledge through the classroom and avoiding unsafe environments where death threats instill fear–campus climate issues are in no way uncommon.

The roots of this hostility and persecution are clear: Centuries of racial oppression have led to the establishment of institutions that are built to serve the interests, predominantly, of whites individuals. And although recent progress in terms of racial equality has given more people of color access to the institutions themselves, they have in no way welcomed them with opened arms. This fact is clear not simply from the well-publicized events, but also through the countless stories from students of color, particularly Black students, throughout the US as seen through social media campaigns like #blackoncampus.

This perspective is important for a number of reasons: Not only does it provide us context for the events we see today, but it also helps us understand the cumulative impact of these aggressions. Because many of these racial aggressions are built into the very fabric of these institutions–as seen through the names of slaveholders plastered on university buildings where students fight tirelessly to get them removed–students of color face these aggressions on a day to day basis; what we are seeing on college campuses now is not the beginning of these oppressions, but rather the tipping point.

And while these cries for justice, for civility and for respect take place on campuses throughout the nation, those against these student movements continuously claim that these student demands restrict free speech on college campuses<a, and call for the end of the protests themselves. The protection of speech is a noble endeavor, but hiding behind these criticisms while students march and protest is misguided and naive. The ability to complain about stifling free speech and open dialogue for the sake of one’s education while the performance and safety of students of color are consistently attacked by campus climates comes from a position of privilege; they are, in some ways, defending an institutional environment that was never inclusive to these students in the first place.

However, while we should be putting consistent efforts into dismantling this form of oppression, into ridding these institutions of the implicit and explicit biases that reduce performance and graduation rates, as well as create an environment of fear, we also must focus on providing resources for students now. While calls for justice continue on campuses everywhere, students of color are still being impacted; while society inches towards equality and progress, black and brown students are still put at risk.

This is why we turn to restorative justice. As a tool for healing and growth, restorative justice allows those impacted by events like these to have access to spaces where their experiences will be heard and validated. Rather than silently enduring the burdens of these issues, restorative justice allows students to share their stories in safe environments in a way that empowers students and exposes the broader campus community to the existence of these issues before they reach a tipping point. On campuses where reminders of our racist past and present are engraved in the names of buildings, built into school curriculums and displayed in the costumes of fellow classmates, students of color deserve deserve the tools needed to both cope as well as grow.

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