“Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”
This motto lies at the heart of UChicago’s mission and vision for its academic community. It calls upon students to challenge themselves and pursue their intellectual potential with vigor. But how can this institution speak of utilizing intellectual thought and discovery for the wellbeing of our society while it continually fails to meet the moment in matters of racial justice? From failing to create space for Black grad students to minimizing student calls for cultural houses and substantive funding for essential multicultural campus offices, UChicago’s inability to acknowledge and act upon the demands of its Black student advocates stifles the growth and potential of Black students both at the undergrad and graduate levels. In other words, when it comes to investing in, supporting, and centering Black students, UChicago has perpetually missed the mark. Investments in intellectual spaces such as the creation of a critical race studies department is a critical step that UChicago can take toward repairing its relationship with the Black community.
Recently, UChicago began deliberations on a proposal for a critical race studies department to be established on campus. The creation of such a department could be the beginning of the University reckoning with its own troubling history of white supremacy. From the displacement of the Woodlawn community, redlining, and segregation, the University administration has had ample opportunity to stand up, speak out, and be a leader amongst its peers in support of racial justice for its students and Southside neighbors—but it has repeatedly come up short. As an elite university on Chicago’s South Side, UChicago should be a definitive clearinghouse for Black intellectual thought, yet the institution still struggles to bring Blackness to the forefront. Even now, UChicago’s recruitment of Black students (especially at the graduate level) remains low, with some departments housing only three Black students; the budgets for the campus Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs have repeatedly been slashed at a time when more resources are desperately needed, and some divisions have little to no tenured Black faculty like the Harris School of Public Policy, which currently only employs one Black associate professor. We, the Black Graduate Coalition (BGC), believe that establishing a critical race studies department is an opportunity for the University to finally take things in a different direction.
Creating a critical race studies department at the University of Chicago would offer the administration a critical opportunity to take a firm stance against white supremacy, rather than continuing to perpetuate it. On one hand, UChicago risks continuing its performative allyship towards its Black students and the surrounding communities; on the other, concerted investment into a critical race studies department can push the University to combat systemic racism by affording students the opportunity to adequately interface with Black scholars and learn from seminal leaders in race studies.
A critical race studies department will be integral to UChicago’s intellectual community, but for this to happen, the University must invest thoroughly in both its creation and survival. This means ensuring the anti-racist, Black-centered, and justice-informed curriculum from the department is woven into every academic division with the goal of creating an anti-racist learning environment for all. BGC, among others, demand that the University actively participates in the production of a critical race studies department. The University must ensure the department has the resources to establish genuine and intentional relationships with students, faculty, and community members so that it may foster critical dialogue and nurture community relationships.
As Black graduate students, we continuously feel the consequences of the University’s lukewarm approach to acknowledging Black student voices. Often, conversations about race are left to students of color—and are, from our perspective, inadequately addressed, if at all. Thankfully, Black students continue to advocate in spite of these challenges and are starting to see success. Today, the newly formed and student-led Black Grad Coalition has over 100 members listed on its roster and continues to be a force for good both on campus and in the community.
We write this because we care. We want UChicago to live up to its vision and promise: to enrich the lives of all its students in meaningful ways. Since the beginning, Black leaders have been here, advocating, organizing, and calling for change. Now, it’s time for UChicago to take substantive action, to take ownership of the ways it has harmed, dismissed, and ignored Black communities. We don’t want Amy Cooper or Richard Spencer to be a part of the lasting legacy of UChicago, nor do we want another generation of Black students leaving UChicago without ever receiving the full support they needed. UChicago cultivates the brightest minds—and Black students are no exception. We contribute in salient ways to UChicago’s prestige and reputation as an intellectual powerhouse, and the University cannot deny this. If UChicago continues to minimize the requests of Black students, then the institution will never fully realize its vision. UChicago will, instead, stand in its own way, preventing itself from ever reaching the ideals to which it aspires.
Alexandrea Wilson, Justin Douglas, Joash Lake, and Prisca Tuyishime are executive board members of the UChicago BGC. The BGC serves as a student union for all Black graduate and professional students at UChicago, with an intentional focus on community building, campus activism, and civic engagement.