Protests at the University of Missouri have fueled conversations about race relations on college campuses. They also reveal an often overlooked fact: there are very few African Americans on most campuses. We talked with some Ohio State University students about what it’s like being black on campus.
Ohio State is one of the country’s largest universities. More than 58,000 students attend classes in Columbus. That’s a lot of young people, but very few of them are black. Only five percent of OSU Students are African Americans.
It’s not just an Ohio State issue. Other Big Ten schools report similar low numbers of African American students. At Illinois and Michigan, for example, only five percent of its students are black, while numbers are lower at Purdue and Iowa, around three percent.
Ohio State freshman Raven Green was walking near the South Oval Monday afternoon.
“When you go to these classes, you are the only one," she said about most of her classes.
Green is from Akron and studying social work. We asked her to give us a sense of what it’s like to be black at OSU.
“It’s very intimidating, and it’s kind of uncomfortable sometimes.”
Green said she feels “isolated” – a lot.
“It’s very hard. It’s not that it’s not welcoming, it’s just very, like, you’re kind of ignored. You kind of feel alone," she said. "And when you walk places they kind of look at you, like, you know, what are you doing?”
“The looks, I think that’s the thing that makes me really uncomfortable," Green added.
First-year engineering student Chudi Fyle, of Columbus, never used the word isolated. Rather, he described being one of a few as the norm.
“I was always like a minority student, like, there was always a small percentage of African Americans around me. So it’s not really that big of a deal for me. I’m kind of used to it," Fyle said. "But I can, like, I can see how some people who aren’t used to it could be kind of taken aback.”
Both Fyle and Green say they have experienced implicit racism at least once on campus. Fyle said the isolated incidents are not a representation of the student body as a whole. And Green underscores she does not think white students mean to offend minorities, but it happens.
“Like when I first got here there was a Confederate flag up in somebody’s dorm. Baker [Dorm] is a welcoming place, and they told the guy to take it down. So they’re definitely not trying to leave us out," Green said.
Despite low numbers of black students at OSU and other Big Ten schools, the number of African American high school graduates attending college is growing. The rate is about even with white students. Low quality public schools and not having parents attend college can suppress African American enrollment. Then there’s the cost of tuition said third-year political science major Ethan Williams.
“There’s no animosity towards minorities at all here. They’re very much welcome," Williams said. "I think that it’s more of a financial issue, an issue of the increasing cost of college as opposed to any sort of anger towards minorities or anything like that.”
At Hale Hall, the university’s Black Cultural Center, Sharon Davies is in her fourth month as OSU’s chief diversity officer.
“We just haven’t yet succeeded in enrolling a critical mass of African American students," Davies said.
Davies said diversity improves education, and breaks stereotypes.
“The perception that African Americans are good at some things and not others, are great athletes, but maybe not a future neurosurgeon, those are wrong," she said. "And those are the kinds of things that are created when we see more African American students here in certain roles and not enough in our seats in law school, in medical school, in the Fisher College of Business.”
While better schools and lower tuition could help more African American students go to college, Davies said enrollment is key. The more black students on campus, the more African American students will want to come.
“We don’t reach critical mass until we admit more students from underrepresented minority groups to Ohio State,"she said. "So I don’t let myself off the hook for that. That’s going to be an important part of my job.”
Davies said the spotlight students are shining on the lack of the diversity across college campuses has renewed the push for OSU to do better.