From 2006 to 2010, I lived as a faculty fellow in dormitory housing with my undergraduate students at Vassar College, where I am now a tenured professor. I loved living on campus so much that I had to invent off-campus errands just to force myself to leave my place of employment. Sick, I know. Yet, even with the cynicism that time and tenure can create, I still count those years as the most positively formative of my teaching career. Not only did I witness the richness of student life outside the classroom—it’s less raucous than you might imagine—but, in exchanging my privacy for rent-free living among undergraduates, I was also able to begin the process of unburying myself from the mountain of student-loan and credit-card debt that came from spending years of making near poverty-level wages as a black graduate student from a working-class background.
Early in my stint as a faculty fellow, a small noose, fashioned out of the cord of a window shade, was found hanging in a common area. It was the fall of 2007—the same year of the Jena 6 protests, which were responses to the arrest and excessive punishment of six black students in Louisiana for fighting a white student days after nooses were found hanging in a tree at a local high school. Nooses were found all over the nation around that time. Vassar’s administration swiftly sent a campus-wide e-mail, admonishing the act and declaring it incompatible with our supposed inclusive environment. As a scholar of Black Studies and the dorm fellow, thus the “domestic” arm of administration, I worked with a few other faculty members to engage the students in a dialogue about the history of racist terror associated with nooses. We hoped to educate away what we perceived to be a threat of violence. The dialogue, like the campus-wide e-mail, was supposed to vanquish the specter and spectacle of anti-black racism from our campus.
Of course, my own didactic attempt and the larger, administrative attempts to deal with the noose are insufficient for material change, not simply because such spectacles are often mismanaged by institutional players, but also because specters always rematerialize when treated as isolated occurrences.
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Lawrence Ross conjures an assortment of such ghostly deeds on predominantly white campuses across the country in the recently published Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses. Ross, a journalist who’s written on topics as far afield as the porn industry and black international travel narratives, cut his teeth on the topic of blacks in higher education with his book The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities (2001). Blackballed marks Ross’s return to higher-ed and moves forward his thesis: discriminatory hostility is the hallmark of the college experience for black students on predominantly white campuses across the United States.
Detailing decades of incidents, Ross’s evidence mostly includes interviews and anecdotes that detail anti–affirmative action activism and the purposeful exclusion of black women from white sororities, and videos of fraternity members leading chants filled with the N-word and “blackface” and “ghetto” on-campus frat parties. Perhaps because of his earlier work on “the Divine Nine,” the importance of white Greek life in shaping and perpetuating campus racism against black students constitutes the bulk of his focus in this eight-chapter book. Some readers will no doubt find the importance placed on anti-black racism emanating from white fraternities and sororities to be overly stressed, but Ross’s aim is to illustrate how institutional norms sanction the terrorizing of black students by white students. But the offenses, mostly Greek life-related, recounted in Blackballed are so numerous that they form clear and convincing evidence of racist menace on college campuses.