The LEAP Challenge Blog

Chad Anderson
Editor and Writer

The Stakes Are High: What Can Higher Education Learn from Trayvon Martin?

This blog post is part of AAC&U’s blog series on Making Excellence Inclusive.

The death of Trayvon Martin has sparked a national conversation on racism, the law, media, and ethics, and it is clear that Martin has put a face on the systemic problem of racial profiling. As an African-American man, I cannot help but think how easily Trayvon Martin could have been someone I know and love: a nephew, a cousin, a friend. In fact, I cannot help but wonder if it could have been me. I grew up in small-town Virginia, in a quiet, predominantly white community similar to the one where Martin was shot. And now, in Washington, DC, I live on a similar street, and I often walk to the corner market with the hood of my jacket shielding my face from the cold. All of this prompts me to ask what the AAC&U community and higher education can learn from this tragedy, how it might inform our work to foster the potential in all students—particularly men of color—as well as our efforts to build an informed, antiracist culture. Most of all, I wonder what is at stake if we as educators fail.

AAC&U aims to answer those big, complex questions through its national meetings, such as the March, 2012 Student Success conference and the upcoming Diversity and Learning conference in October, as well as through publications such as Diversity and Democracy. At the Student Success meeting, I attended a session facilitated by Norm J. Jones of Dickinson College and John Michael Lee, Jr. of the College Board. According to research from the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center, 51 percent of Latino males, 45 percent of African American males, 42 percent of Native American males, and 33 percent of Asian American males between ages 15 and 24 who graduate high school will end up unemployed, incarcerated or dead. I cannot help but picture Trayvon Martin’s face in those numbers, the faces of my nephews. For educators in a country that professes equality and democracy as its founding principles, these numbers and the dire portrait they paint are unacceptable. And they not only reveal what is at stake, but demonstrate that the stakes for these students are high.

In light of the above statistics, it is encouraging to see programs such as Dickinson College’s MANdatory, whose mission it is “to provide a space where men of color can share their Dickinson experience through a raced/gendered lens” and “to assist men of color in defining notions of success for themselves and in the context of their own experience.” Acknowledging the particular challenges, contributions, and concerns of men of color is key to college access and retention and to fostering their sense of identity and inclusion on campus. As Shaun Harper and Frank Harris write in College Men and Masculinities, male students of color are “better served by advocates who see them for who they are (note that we didn’t say ‘see them as different’) and make known to colleagues and White students how the experiential realities of men of color help explain persistent gender gaps in engagement and achievement.” Not only are programs such as MANdatory essential to fostering individual success on campus, but by raising awareness of the experiences of men of color, they can create campus and community cultures that value intercultural learning and perspective-taking—both of which are outcomes included in the Essential Learning Outcomes developed as part of AAC&U’s LEAP Initiative. These outcomes are, in fact, essential for an inclusive, socially responsible, and informed citizenry. When educators—and the nation as a whole—begin to see young men of color as people with specific talents, interests, and needs, and not as statistics or problems to be feared or fixed, we just might see the above percentages shrink.

In fact, providing support for male students of color is only half of the equation. A 2010 report from the College Board, The Educational Crisis Facing Young Men of Color (referenced in a recent blog post by Tia Brown McNair), names lack of familial support, financial constraints, unsympathetic peer groups, and machismo as roadblocks to academic success for men of color. These roadblocks in turn may lead them to be among the aforementioned percentages. Admittedly, I did not have some of the obstacles many men of color face when it comes to college retention and success. But, that night in February, if I were in Trayvon Martin’s shoes (or in his hoodie) that may not have mattered, because positive potential just is not associated with African American men in this country. As Nell Irvin Painter writes in The History of White People, “What we can see depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for.” In the eyes of so many Americans, young black men—like Trayvon Martin, like my nephews—become a number, a stereotype, a threat. And those perceptions can cost a person everything. Consequently, just as it is important for higher education to cultivate the potential of men of color, it is equally imperative that we work to dismantle the dangerous perceptions and misguided ideologies that are systemically embedded in our national (and global) psyche.

Undeniably, men of color are not the only students who face systemic misrepresentation and exclusion on our campuses and in our culture (and male privilege cannot be overlooked). Women, low-income students, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender students, and immigrant students face immense barriers as well, and higher education can and should be a tool for toppling walls and paving pathways to success. Of course, higher education is not the sole answer to the question of equity, and I am certainly not arguing that what transpired between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin could have been prevented by education alone. But I will assert that a quality liberal education is a vital cornerstone for building a more just, equitable, and inclusive nation and globe. Student learning outcomes such as knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, creative and critical thinking, and personal and social responsibility have the power to foster citizens with sophisticated cross-cultural and global understanding, a commitment to the common good, and a strong vision of democratic voice and justice. This belief is the driving force behind AAC&U’s newest project for community colleges, Bridging Cultures to Form a Nation.

Join us at the Diversity and Learning conference in October to grapple further with these questions, but please do not wait until then to begin the conversation with your colleagues and students. The stakes are far too high.