Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis
California Journal

UC Berkeley's tiny minority of black students finally get a space to call their own

A small but important piece of history was made Tuesday evening at UC Berkeley when the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center opened its doors.

To celebrate, there were speeches. And refreshments. And a deejay.

Also, an understandable sense of accomplishment on the part of the Black Student Union, which has spent years pushing the university to establish the center, named for the great civil rights activist.

Nestled behind Sproul Hall, the Hamer Center occupies a low-slung metal building that for years was a temporary quarters for various departments displaced by remodeling. From now on, it will be a space — yes, a safe space — for black students, whose numbers are so low (less than 3% of the student body) that they feel isolated.

How isolated?

Take Tayler Hughes, a 20-year-old junior majoring in gender/women’s studies and molecular cell biology. Hughes, an aspiring OB-GYN, is often the only black person in her science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — classes.

“I could tell from the get-go, in Chem 1A, that this was not a safe space for me because there was no one willing to be my lab partner,” she told me the other day. “This is something all black STEM majors go through at Berkeley. The white students don’t even acknowledge my presence half the time. They don’t think I’m capable enough or know the material. What it means is I study alone.”

It has been isolating for Carlisha Washington, a 24-year-old senior, who was assigned a campus apartment with three international students as roommates on her return from a three-week study trip in Cuba in August.

“They told me they didn’t want me to use their dishes, when all my stuff was still in storage,” she said. “They told me they didn’t want me to keep any of my products in the shower because they don’t want my ‘germs.’”

She complained and went through mediation with her roommates (which sounds awful to me, like putting a victim in a room with an assailant), and it took the housing office two months to find her another home, but with a much higher rent. In her new apartment building, someone has scrawled “Trump” twice on the frosted glass door of her upstairs neighbor, who is also black.

And it has been isolating for Key’Toya Burrell, 23, a sociology major and member of Cal’s mock trial team, who is tired of being featured on posters used to attract black students to a school that seems to stop paying attention once they enroll.

She’s appreciated for what she calls “my adorable brown skin and puffy hair.”

“I’m like a little pet, so they can say, ‘Oh, we have black students.’ But they don’t care about my soul.”

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“I don’t disagree with that,” said Na’ilah Nasir, vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, who is black. “I am myself on many brochures.”

She said Hughes’ complaint about STEM classrooms is not uncommon. “Those narratives about who is smart at math and science are pervasive. These are not just Berkeley problems. They’re national problem.” And roommate issues, she noted, are legion.

Two years ago, the university launched an African American Initiative, a long-range program aimed at addressing the needs of black staff, faculty and students. One of its goals is to raise $20 million for scholarships and staff retention. The Hamer Center is part of that effort. There will be tutoring and counseling, poetry, dancing, whatever it takes to create a supportive community.

“It’s actually pretty groundbreaking,” said Nasir, who graduated from Cal in 1993 at a time when black students hung out, rain or shine, on a low wall next to the Golden Bear restaurant near Sather Gate. “Having a physical space that affirms that they belong on this campus, are valued on this campus and supported on this campus will make a difference.”

And, of course, it’s long overdue. In 1995, University of California regents abolished race-based admissions programs, and almost instantly black enrollment plunged and has been low ever since. Last fall, a mere 2.5% of Cal’s 6,250 enrolled freshmen was black. (In 1997, 7.8% were black.)

“There’s just a complete lack of black students in classes and lectures,” said AJ Moultrie, a 21-year-old journalism and communications major who is the Black Student Union’s communications director. “Anti-blackness is prominent in many spaces on campus. There’s a lack of sensitivity and a lack of the recognition of the struggles and emotions that we face on campus.” 

She was moved to speak up when her public policy professor showed a video that included scenes of slaves being whipped, which the class’ three black students found difficult to watch. “I went to the professor and said the only narratives you are showing is of us being slaves. You need to let me speak to the students in this class and tell them what’s really going on as far as black students working and organizing on this campus.”

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On Wednesday, the Black Student Union held a news conference on the steps of Sproul Hall at Cal’s main entrance to demand full funding for the Hamer Center. Reading from a statement, Moultrie accused the administration, which spent $85,000 to repair and remodel the building, of failing to allocate an operating budget for staff.

“They expect the BSU to do the fundraising. We are students. It’s not our job to do,” Moultrie said, “especially when the university has told the public they are doing it.”

But Vice Chancellor Nasir, after meeting with the students on Friday, said there had been a misunderstanding. The university, she said, plans to allocate $30,000 a year and is developing a fundraising plan.

That did not especially mollify the Black Student Union, which had asked for a $500,000 budget to cover salaries and benefits for full-time staff.

“We are happy that she said that,” Moultrie said, “but there is nothing in writing that we will in fact be getting those funds.”

“It is funded,” Nasir said Monday. “And I know the students understand that being provided with that space is a very big deal because space is really tight on this campus.”

By the way, she noted, “It’s not a space only black people can go to. We are a public university. It’s a space everyone can be part of, but it will affirm our black students. Anyone is welcome. And anyone is welcome to donate.”

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com 

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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