Racial tensions inflame UCLA student body election, driving calls for more representation
Student activists have vowed to push the new student council to declare UCLA a sanctuary campus for those who feel vulnerable under the Trump administration.
At UCLA, the furor started with a photo of the undergraduate student body president, making a hand sign associated with the Bloods.
Danny Siegel is white. He was wearing a suit and tie.
Many African American students were angered by what they saw as a man of white privilege mocking their community and clueless about the poverty and despair that drive some in it into gangs.
There were those, of course, who said to chill out, the photo was a joke.
But anger over the image appears to have contributed to the stunning defeat of Siegel’s campus party in last week’s undergraduate student elections — and the intensity of the reaction was the latest sign of discontent among many University of California students of color who believe that administrators and some fellow students continue to slight them and to discount their needs.
Although UC has steadily increased the enrollment of low-income and minority students and invested millions of dollars into academic and social support services for them, some students say the efforts are not nearly enough.
Alicia Frison, chairwoman of the UCLA Afrikan Student Union, said African American students face problems throughout the 10-campus university system. At UC Santa Cruz, more than 100 black students occupied Kerr Hall for three days last week before Chancellor George Blumenthal agreed to meet their demands for a guarantee of four years of housing at the Rosa Parks African American Theme House, as well as more student lounge space and the inclusion of diversity education at student orientations.
Frison said African American students at UC San Diego are upset about white nationalist organizations on campus and black victims of sexual violence at UC Santa Barbara have joined sit-ins pressing for more services.
At UCLA, African American students have issued a list of demands, including hiring more faculty of color.
“The problems are systemwide,” Frison said.
The UCLA and UC Santa Cruz tensions attracted national attention. A New York civil rights organization wrote an open letter to Blumenthal, demanding to know whether UC Santa Cruz was preparing to fund “racial separatism” with the housing guarantee and foist racial “indoctrination” on new students with the diversity education.
Blumenthal, in a May 4 letter to the campus community, said administrators “fundamentally agree” with students of color that they need more support.
“Though we have been working with underrepresented communities … we acknowledge that we have not done enough to engage with them successfully,” he wrote. “Students from historically underrepresented communities deal with real challenges on campus and in the community. These difficulties include things that many people take for granted, such as finding housing or even just a sense of community.”
In last week’s UCLA elections, Siegel’s Bruins United political party, for the first time in several years, failed to win a plurality of the 14 student council seats when votes were counted late Friday. Students running as independents — most of them black, Latino and Asian American — won nine seats.
“The election is a real wakeup call...It sends a message that Bruin United’s mantra of inclusivity is false,” Divya Sharma, a former party member and gay South Asian student, said Monday. He won the seat of academic affairs commissioner as an independent candidate.
In a Daily Bruin commentary that also is credited with influencing the election, Sharma wrote last week that he left Bruins United because “I realized they only cared about me so I could be their queer man of color who would add diversity to their slate.”
Bruins United was embroiled in another controversy last year when a document from the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity that contained racial slurs against Mexicans and blacks was found on the Google drive of a student who was a member of both the fraternity and the campus political party.
Siegel, the outgoing student body president, has apologized publicly for the photo and told The Times this week that it was “foolish and immature.” But he said the photo was taken a year ago and just recently showed up on social media, “strategically leaked knowing it would inflame racial tensions and help them in the election.” As for last year’s scandal, he insisted that Bruins United had nothing to do with the fraternity document, despite people’s efforts to link them.
Since the photo was circulated, Siegel said he has received threats and another Bruins United member was physically assaulted on campus.
Siegel said that his party, which was formed in 2004, maintains an open-door policy for meetings, candidate recruitment and membership and successfully lobbied for equal funding for all student groups, including Greek organizations and Republican and Democratic clubs.
Some student activists, however, don’t think equal funding makes sense. They say they plan to push the newly elected members on the Undergraduate Students Assn. Council to reallocate some of the money to better support historically underrepresented groups.
Robert Gardner, a fourth-year student in political science whose denunciation of Siegel’s photo was widely shared on Facebook, said African Americans generally are less able than many wealthy members of fraternities and sororities to dig into their own pockets to pay for student events.
He said he and other activists also want the student council to declare UCLA a sanctuary campus for those who feel vulnerable under the Trump administration, including not just Muslim and LGBTQ students and those who are in the country illegally but also African Americans.
“Having a new majority on the council gives us an opportunity to make important reforms, especially to support historically marginalized communities,” Gardner said.
For her part, Arielle Yael Mokhtarzadeh, who won the student body presidency as an unopposed Bruins United candidate, decried what she called the “incivility and inhumanity” of last week’s election. But she vowed to mend fences.
“The new council must set aside its partisan inclinations to serve all students on this campus,” she wrote in an email. “We must model what engagement, understanding and empathy can and should look like at UCLA.”
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