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An Examination of Racial Divides Within Institutions

April 26, 2017

How do institutions of higher education handle racial incidents? How do colleges and universities manage first amendment rights? These are the questions associate professor Joyce Bell seeks to answer through her research focused on the treatment of students of color within today's higher education system.

Professor Bell earned her PhD in sociology from the University of Minnesota in 2007. She is the author of The Black Power Movement and American Social Work (Columbia University Press, 2014) along with numerous academic articles. Currently, Bell's research examines how resistance shapes the professions as well as how the notion of diversity works as a tool to co-opt progressive racial policy, movements, and discourse. She is writing a new book examining Black Power law. Bell explains, "The book examines the role that lawyers played in the Black Power movement and their uses of the law to advance the movement."

Based on her research on equal opportunity law and race-based policies in higher education, Bell has found that the rights of students of color are often secondary. "When faced with conflict between the right to racist expression and the right to not be harassed, university administrators tend to favor the right to be racist," Bell says, noting university responses to anti-immigrant communications happening on campuses across the country during and after the 2016 election season. "As a result, this has implications for creating a just and equitable environment. The question lies in how higher education institutions balance the need to protect first amendment rights with the need to provide meaningful equal access for students of color."

In order to better understand this problem, it is necessary to understand the definition of racism. Bell further explains, "Racism can be defined as a structural system that categorizes people into races and assigns worth to those categories, offering different levels of access to social, economic, and political power." Institutions can reproduce conditions of racism. "These institutional manifestations of racism are sometimes subtle and covert. They continue to endure over time," Bell says.

In order to continue to discuss the effects of racism here at the University of Minnesota, Professor Bell will be offering a new course for fall 2017 titled Black to the Future; Racial Visions of Tomorrow. During this course, students will use multiple sources including sci-fi literature, film, and music in order to think critically as well as discuss issues surrounding race relations. "This course will also examine what visions about the future can be seen in today’s society and what can be done about those visions," Bell says.

Bell is driven to make an impact through her research. Her work points to the need for colleges and universities to go beyond "celebrating diversity" and create policies that have consequences for perpetrators of racial harassment. "I am someone who believes in justice, higher education, equitable environments, and social movements. My hope is that my research will help people to see how individuals can shape their own social settings in order to create change." 

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.