Trouble in Paradise: Welcome to Post-Racial California
by: Prof. Jorge Mariscal (UCSD-Literature)
On April 29, 1992, an all white jury acquitted three Los Angeles police officers accused in the videotaped beating of African American Rodney King. Within hours, riots were raging across southern California.
At the University of California, San Diego, Chicano and African American students held a protest on the usually placid La Jolla campus, one of the wealthiest and least racially diverse communities in the nation. In an unexpected and unplanned move, hundreds of students began to march eastward toward the I-5 freeway. Suddenly, they moved on to the freeway itself blocking the southbound lanes for several hours.
When interviewed later that day, UCSD students explained that while the King verdict might have been the trigger for their actions the real impetus was their years of frustration and isolation at the La Jolla campus. Many of them were student activists; most were students of color. One Chicano was president of the Associated Students. All of them represented organizations that had proposed reforms to the university that would make it more hospitable and inclusive of minority students. All of their proposals had fallen on deaf administrative ears. The injustice of the King verdict, the students said, was a distant reflection of the injustice the students experienced every day on campus.
For a seemingly idyllic campus hidden away from working class communities, twelve miles from the urban core of San Diego, UCSD had produced its fair share of radical student movements. The most famous began in 1969 when a coalition of African American and Chicana students proposed a Lumumba-Zapata College in an attempt to force the campus to address minority concerns. Angela Davis was the best-known actor in that chapter of UCSD’s history, but there were scores of others who learned their organizing skills in, of all places, La Jolla. Somehow, whenever the national mood was conducive to student mobilization, UCSD was in the vanguard.
Flash forward eighteen years from the freeway takeover. The UCSD campus in 2010 was physically much different but its institutional character had not changed at all. There was a new engineering corridor, a new business school, and in general corporate influence was more visible than ever before. But the percentage of African American and Chicano undergraduates remained the same—1.3% and 9% respectively–and most students continued to find the campus climate as drab and sterile as it had been for almost five decades.
For many students of color, the climate was downright hostile. A relatively new feature of campus life was the growing presence of a Greek system of fraternities–some of them traced their origins to Reconstruction with founders who were disgruntled supporters of the Confederacy. Many of the frat boys associated themselves with a student newspaper called the Koala that published a steady stream of sexist, homophobic, and racist screed designed to provoke and intimidate. UCSD was a tinderbox waiting for a spark.
In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the entire University of California system appeared to be entering the final throes of privatization. State support had dried up and so campuses would have to survive on the backs of their students by increasing fees, cutting services, and increasing the number of non-residents (the so-called Michigan model). The vision of an affordable college education for all, which San Diego Chicano and Black communities had always recognized as an illusion, was now receding from middle-class families of every color. The push to find revenue in the pockets of out-of-state students meant that at least some California residents would be displaced. Clark Kerr’s dream of accessible higher education seemed as faded as the photographs of him and President Kennedy at the 1962 Berkeley graduation ceremony.
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