3 critical lessons from campus racial flashpoints that we ignore

Expert Insight

3 critical lessons from campus racial flashpoints that we ignore

In recent years, the removal or renaming of statues and monuments, mascots, and even institutions have captured national attention and prompted heated debate over how we should grapple with histories and legacies of racial oppression.

But what institution leaders may not recognize is many campus flashpoints that seem unconnected to removing visible symbols of oppression are often rooted in the institution’s historical legacy of racial harm. Caught up in the controversy of the moment, leaders can overlook a valuable opportunity to use campus flashpoints as a starting point to investigate their institution’s racial legacy and use this knowledge to improve the current campus climate.


of student activist demands were focused on racial justice on college campuses in 2020

In our research, we surfaced three common mistakes made by institution leaders when responding to racial flashpoints. Read the examples below and then download our “Racial Flashpoint Post-Mortem Analysis Tool” to support your team’s analyses of campus flashpoints and their connections to legacies of racial harm.

Three things we get wrong about racial flashpoint response

1. Our responses to racial flashpoints too often prioritize quick-fix solutions and ignore the underlying context and complex connections to institutional history

In an effort to quickly respond to campus activism, institutional responses can overly focus on visible, short-term solutions that do not explore the root causes of historical harm (e.g., building name changes, diversity training, a public statement in support of diversity and inclusion).

Although effective at calming immediate community unrest, this nearsighted approach fails to provide leaders with an understanding of how campus issues have evolved over time. Failing to connect current racial flashpoints and longstanding causes of racism on campus leaves leaders uninformed of how students are engaging with these issues on campus and how the institution can better prepare for related flashpoints in the future.

What to do instead: In the aftermath of a flashpoint, the vice president for student affairs and/or the chief diversity officer and their team should meet to assess whether and how the core issues that ignited the flashpoint have evolved over time. In what ways is this singular incident connected to previous flashpoints in the past 2, 5, 10, or even 15 years? A longitudinal analysis of the issue can reveal deeper challenges that affect your campus community.

For example, in 2021, students at Howard University protested poor housing conditions for over a month. Similarly in 2018, Howard students held a nine-day protest demanding the creation of a university food bank. When these incidents are considered in context of one another, it becomes clear that there is ongoing student demand for basic needs support. These incidents can be connected even further to the chronic underfunding HBCUs experience serving outsized representations of students of color. Taking the time to identify and reflect on such patterns can aid efforts to resolve student issues and prevent future related flashpoints.

Resource: Check out EAB’s infographic on how to engage today’s student activists.

2. Our response efforts don't recognize compounded mistrust between the institution and communities of color

When campus leaders overlook the broader historical context of a racial flashpoint, they fail to consider the historical experiences communities of colors have had with the institution. Over time, unresolved legacies of harm contribute to public distrust of the institution and frayed relationships. And this lack of trust can lead to vocal skepticism and even resistance to institutional DEIJ endeavors to address community concerns.

Common factors that lead communities to distrust institutions

  • Lack of accountability
  • Patterns of no response or action to community experiences of harm
  • Lack of community representation in institutional decision-making
  • Prioritizing business over community needs
  • Withholding information and resources

“The decline of trust has widespread, negative effects across all aspects of society…universities have an important role to play in winning back the trust that has been lost.”

Alice Gast

President, Imperial College London

What to do instead : In a post-flashpoint analysis, evaluate the state of relations between the institution and the communities of color involved. In what ways does your leadership team maintain relationships and remain current with community needs, experiences, and perspectives? Consider collecting data (e.g., surveys, focus groups) from the involved groups to get a clearer sense of how the institution is perceived and trusted by the community. Efforts to rebuild trust with communities of color can help address past grievances and mitigate future friction and harm.

3. Our efforts to explore institutional history fail to connect to the present-day campus climate

In the U.S. and Canada meaningful work is happening to understand institutional histories of racial oppression. Some institutions like Dalhousie University are undertaking archival projects that explore and document historical records to create a publicly accessible narrative of the institution’s past. Other institutions like Davidson College are creating a shared understanding of the university’s history through initiatives that memorialize and educate the broader community.

While significant undertakings, few if any history projects connect the research to the present-day institutional climate and the current realities of communities of color. If the institution fails to connect historical harm to the present-day, it may continue to unintentionally support harmful policies and practices (such as biased standardized testing). To stop the perpetuation of historic harm, we must go beyond studying history in isolation and meaningfully examine and address its present-day implications.

Resource: Check out our recent profile of institutions commissioning history initiatives to understand their institutional legacies of racism through archival and collective memory projects.

What to do instead: Consider racial flashpoints as an opportunity to measure the efficacy of your institutional commitments to address your racial climate. Flashpoints are indicators of existing racial dynamics and challenges on campus. In your reflections, consider what institutional resources you have and can leverage to address the root issues driving the flashpoints.

For example, student activists have demanded reforming campus police units across the country, many of which were established in the 20th century in response to tensions between institutions in cities and neighboring communities of color. Going beyond the chronicling of these histories, universities have begun collaborating with police units to mend community relations and rebuild trust with their residents.

Where to start?

To better understand the connections between racial flashpoints and institutional legacies of harm, it is critical that senior leaders evaluate and reflect on each campus flashpoint. Use our “Racial Flashpoint Post-Mortem Analysis” tool to support your team’s efforts to investigate racial flashpoints by:


Analyzing the chronology and evolution of a recent campus flashpoint specific to racial harm

Assessing the state of relations between the institution and communities of color involved

Identifying and meaningfully addressing underlying root causes of racial harm on campus

Essential guidance for exploring your institution's legacies of racism

In our analysis of institutional reckoning efforts, several institutions stood out for going beyond quick-fix solutions and doing meaningful work to understand their institutional histories of racial oppression.

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