African-Americans students evaluate their place at USC

This is the first piece in USC’s Daily Trojan series on demographics. 

On Nov. 1, 2012, Raishad Hardnett dodged a swarm of reporters, cameras and news crews as he headed to his morning classes.

This day was unusual for other reasons, too. When Hardnett walked into class that day, he noticed a fraction of students who made themselves undeniably noticeable. They were covered in USC apparel. And most of them were black.

From his personal experience as a black student, Hardnett had a theory as to why. It was a reaction to a community’s lack of inclusion, he thought.

“I felt like I didn’t belong at this school all of a sudden,” said Hardnett, a senior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. “After all the things that I had put into it, all the resources, the time, the effort, all the money — I felt like I could no longer relate to the university.”

The night before, the Black Student Assembly hosted more than 400 guests at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center for a Halloween party. By 11:45 p.m., dozens of students were dancing to blasting music in the center’s underground ballroom. Above ground, others waited in line to enter. But that crowd dispersed shortly before midnight. Gunshots rang out.

The on-campus shooting, which did not involve any USC students or faculty, sent four non-university affiliated victims to the hospital. Police arrested and charged the alleged shooter, Brandon Spencer, a black 21-year-old, with four counts of attempted murder.

In the days following, many believed the event caused a rift between the university’s black community and the rest of campus.

Several black students explained that they began to feel ostracized when online commenters called the party a “ghetto nightclub” and suggested that violence was unavoidable for black students on the Daily Trojan and Los Angeles Times websites.

This feeling was not lost on Hardnett. Despite his involvement on campus as a journalist for Neon Tommy and Annenberg Television News and as the president of the historically black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, he felt his skin color had become his main identifier.

“My sentiments were definitely mirrored around the community,” Hardnett said. “We felt like we were being looked at as outsiders — as black people. Wearing Trojan gear was the only way to say, ‘Hey, I’m not a hoodlum, hey, I go here.’”

From the time of its inception, the relationship between the University of Southern California and its black student population has been constantly adjusting.

Since the early 2000s, black students have comprised about 5 percent of USC’s nearly 18,000 undergraduates. The approximately 900 black undergraduates make up USC’s smallest racial minority group.

At the same time, the black community has deep roots at USC and in the surrounding area. But the community often comes into conflict with the local authorities after accusations of racial profiling.

This relationship came to a head on May 4 when 79 Los Angeles Police Department officers responded to a noise complaint at a party with helicopters and riot gear. The party, just north of campus, was attended predominantly by black students. The incident led to a student movement, which focused on curbing racial profiling. Organizers of the movement put on several rallies and events, making waves on social media and adopting the name “USChangeMovement.”

The uncertainty of belonging on campus and the responses to last year’s high-profile incidents have led many black students to evaluate their place in the Trojan Family.

‘Making Moves and Movements’

To protest the perceived aggression toward minority students by LAPD, Hardnett once again pulled out his USC gear and, on May 6, joined more than 100 students in a sit-in in front of Tommy Trojan.

In the aftermath of the alleged racial profiling incident, a forum discussion was organized to feature LAPD, the Dept. of Public Safety and students in the filled-to-capacity Ronald Tutor Campus Center Ballroom, the same room where the Halloween party had taken place months earlier.

During the event, many students compared LAPD’s response to the May 4 party with their response to a party across the street that had a majority of white students in attendance.

LAPD opened an internal investigation, yet at the forum Capt. Paul Snell of the LAPD Southwest Division said they did not believe it was a case of racial profiling.

“We do not believe at this point that there were any indications that this was race-based,” Snell said. “What I would like to focus now on is how we can move forward. We do not want this to happen again.”

Similar to the Halloween shooting, the USChangeMovement was heavily covered by the media, from outlets ranging from the Los Angeles Times to the Huffington Post. Hardnett, however, said the USChangeMovement created a more supportive climate for black students on campus because several other minority groups, such as Latino and Jewish students, expressed a feeling of marginalization by authorities.

“We were being discriminated against by LAPD,” Hardnett said. “But the response from the students was amazing and was widespread from people of all creeds and backgrounds.”

James White, assistant director of the Undergraduate Student Government Diversity Affairs Committee, however, questioned the administration’s respect for the black community, noting that it took four days for President C. L. Max Nikias to issue a statement.

“I felt like a black man at this university that may or may not care for us the way they care for others,” White said.

In his statement, issued on May 8, Nikias said he had been communicating with DPS and his senior staff since the incident. He expressed concern for students’ well-being and said he was optimistic about continuing an amiable relationship between USC and its students.

“We are confident we will move ahead from this issue in an even more productive and positive manner,” Nikias wrote.

Student-led movements at USC have a long history of moving the university forward. Lois Pitter-Bruce, a black 1978 alumna, said student activism was prominent during her time at USC.

“Efforts are always made to reach out when there are difficulties,” she said. “There were black, Hispanic and Asian organizations. Whatever happened in that community, those communities made the campus and administration move forward and resolve anything that needed to be done.”

The past year’s events are still mobilizing the black community, Ama Amoafo-Yeboah, executive director of the Black Student Assembly, said, citing increased involvement in the surrounding communities and student activism on campus.

“I feel like people are making moves this year,” she said. “Everyone is trying to do something and it’s amazing to see it happen.”

‘Staging community’

Some of the university’s founders and first students struggled with accepting the black community at USC. The university’s second president Joseph Widney wrote a book called Race Life of the Aryan Peoples in 1907, which highlighted and analyzed the superiority of Caucasians throughout history, as compared to minority groups.

Around the same time, USC students staged a petition to expel a black dentistry student, John Somerville, according to the university’s Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs website.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the beloved mascot Traveler, a fixture at USC football games, was named in honor of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s horse that accompanied the general in many battles against the Union during the Civil War.

Today, mindsets at the university have changed dramatically, as they have across the nation. USC explicitly states that it strives to create an environment where racism, bigotry and discrimination of any kind are reprimanded.

Yet, USC officials said students’ concerns with racial profiling are not unfounded.

DPS Chief John Thomas, a lifelong Angeleno who grew up near the University Park campus in the 1960s and 1970s, said he had personal experience dealing with racial profiling around USC.

“If you’re an African-American coming up on this campus, you might be profiled,” Thomas said. “I know I was. That gives me perspective when people say, ‘I was racially profiled’ and made to feel a certain way. I cannot negate that because that happened to me when I was coming up on this campus as a teenager.”

In January, the university implemented new security measures, which include requiring students to show USC identification to enter campus from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and building fences at the entrances at Exposition Boulevard and Jefferson Avenue.

Many students said the new measures might lead to more cases of racial profiling and White said perceived racial profiling could have a strong reverberating effect.

“It’s emotionally draining for some of the students,” he said. “It’s bad for the university because if some of your students don’t feel safe on campus — and they’re the ones to promote the school — then they won’t be able to do that.”

To support students of African heritage, there are more than 40 student organizations on campus. Among them are the Black Student Assembly, Africa ’SC, and eight of the National Panhellenic Council fraternities and sororities. Many of the organizations, Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs Director Corliss Bennett-McBride said, are grounded in community service, political activism and religious faith.

In addition to the student organizations, the university has taken internal steps to support black students.

In 1977, the university created the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs. The center’s services include academic support and professional development, and it seeks to attract and retain more black USC students.

Within housing, the university created Somerville Place, a black special interest floor located in Fluor Tower named after John and Vada Somerville, in 1995.

Bennett-McBride, who has worked at USC for 17 years, said the Somerville floor is an essential space on campus because when students are connected to their cultural community, they have a higher retention rate and involvement in school life.

“It was made to help black students transition to a predominantly white institution,” Bennett-McBride said. “It acts as their home away from home where people understand what they’ve gone through during the day.”

Despite the support systems, the views of some newer members to USC’s black community have been shaped in part by the incidents of the past year.

When Katrina Miller, a freshman majoring in English, heard about the Halloween shooting and USChangeMovement as a prospective student, she considered the impact her race would have on her experience at USC.

“I know I have to face race issues wherever I go,” Miller said. “But I kept thinking how ridiculous it was that those things actually happen. It was cool to see how united the [black] community was and it put some faith back into USC for me.”

 ‘There’s A Divide’

The size of USC’s black student population is comparable to other California universities, such as UCLA with a 3.9 percent black student population, UC Berkeley with a 3.4 percent black student population and Loyola Marymount University with a 5.6 percent black student population.

Tim Brunold, USC dean of admissions, said he believes the university is up to par on the admission rates of black students, especially when USC competes with other prestigious universities in the nation, such as the Ivy League schools, Stanford, Duke and UCLA.

“If you look at the academic caliber of our African-American students, these are some of the very best African-American students from the country,” Brunold said.

Though black students at USC share similar backgrounds, some who were interviewed for this story believe they could be more socially unified.

“I wish we were more cohesive,” said Rebecca Berry, a junior majoring in sociology. “Parts of us are cohesive, but there’s a divide between the athletic black students and the academic students. There’s a divide between students that are more involved in Greek life on The Row and black Greeks. We need to find a way to unite all of us.”

When Makiah Green, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in professional writing, first entered the university as an undergraduate in 2009, she struggled to establish a network with her black peers.

“I didn’t feel a connection to the black community at all,” Green said. “I could already sense that it was divided.”

To Trevian Hall, a sophomore majoring in theater, being grouped by his race was not a main concern for him on campus.

“My race is an identifier but I don’t identify by my race,” Hall said. “I’m proud to be black. But at the same time being black isn’t what makes me. It’s definitely shaped who I am today, but it’s not me.”

Several black students at USC have identified a variety of differences in cultural practices that make it difficult to connect with one another.

Hardnett said when black Trojans encounter one another, they don’t always show signs of acknowledgement. The lack of connection led BSA to go as far as to stage a “Say Hi” campaign in 2010. They created “Say Hi” buttons and fliers to encourage black students to say hello when they walked past one another on campus.

Similarly, Somerville has undergone shifts in demographics of students living on the floor. An equal number of black women and men have not lived on Somerville since 2009, Bennett-McBride said.

Though current residents say the floor fosters awareness of the black community, Bennett-McBride said fewer black students matriculating through USC are the first in their families to attend college, which she thought leads some to feel mentorship and fellowship among their black peers is less necessary.

She said first-generation students were more likely to want help navigating through the university because they did not have parents or other immediate family members who had direct experience with the college process.

White also recognized the growing differences between black students’ backgrounds, but believed everyone in the black community should strive to bridge the divide with their peers who look like them.

“There’s some of us that are somewhat detached in one way or another,” White said, “People should at least involve themselves in some way.”

‘Row Out and Meet It’

To see the ways in which the black community has impacted USC, one needs only to walk inside the Ostrow School of Dentistry. Inside hangs a quote from Somerville, one that defined his mission in life.

“Do not wait for your ship to come in. Row out and meet it,” Somerville said.

Today, many black students said they use the struggles of the past to fuel their goals for the future.

“We can use these issues and recent events as motivation to bridge the gap between communities,” Hardnett said.

Students said that in addition to promoting the USChangeMovement, they wanted to continue supporting the university’s established initiatives that connect them with the surrounding community. The Neighborhood Academic Initiative, a seven-year pre-college program for low-income students around USC’s campuses, offers full scholarships upon completion, is notable. Many of the scholarship recipients are either black or Hispanic.

Brunold said though the university has made great strides in building their diversity and enrolling the brightest black students, there is still work to be done.

“When we’re talking about diversity, we are never talking about how we made it,” Brunold said. “We’re never as diverse as we want to be or should be. We’re always striving to increase diversity in all of its forms.”

Many black students continue to echo the same sentiments. At USC, they still face the struggles associated with past generations of black Trojans, but like any other student, they are proud and hopeful for the future that lies ahead.

Amoafo-Yeboah was one of these students. She views past difficulties as setting an ideal stage for the black community at USC.

“It’s the perfect time for people to be here,” Amoafo-Yeboah said. “It’s the perfect time for us.”

Follow Jordyn on Twitter @jojoholmey

 

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