After the pandemic cut short her senior year on the University of Pittsburgh campus, Sydney Massenberg found herself stuck at home in New Jersey, watching news about George Floyd’s murder and other acts of police violence against Black people.
“It just became more painfully obvious to me how severely people either misunderstand our country's racist foundations or just have no grasp on this at all," said Massenberg, who is 23 and Black. She recalls feeling helpless: “I felt like I had no other option but to speak up about this."
So Massenberg started an online petition demanding Pitt administrators revise general education requirements so that all students must take a Black studies course before graduating from the public university. Her goal? To make students better understand what it means to be Black in America.
Pitt’s faculty senate has listened to her proposal, but administrators have not required students to take Black studies. Instead, Pitt is automatically enrolling first-year students in a new anti-racism course.
Colleges have offered Black studies courses for more than fifty years. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd has prompted some to go a step further: requiring students to take a course on race, ethnicity or anti-racism. These courses are restoking a debate about colleges’ role in rooting out racism and implicit bias.
Beginning this fall, as part of its “anti-racism plan of action,” Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, will require a course called “Diverse Perspectives” for new students. John Swallow, president of the liberal arts college, has said he wants all students to study U.S. racial history as part of their education.
Emory University in Atlanta this fall is rolling out a new general education requirement that focuses on race and ethnicity for undergraduate students. According to the private university, “the purpose of this requirement is to provide students with opportunities to learn about race and ethnicity; political, economic and social exclusions; and the effects of structural inequality.”
Under a new state law enacted last year, California State, the nation’s largest four-year public college system, this fall will begin requiring all new students to take an ethnic studies course to graduate. Western Washington University, a public school in Bellingham, decided in July to add a “Diversity, Equity, Justice” requirement next school year that focuses on “theory, structures or forces of stratification and bias.”
Academic leaders and students are split over these new courses and over higher ed’s role in helping overturn institutional racism and white supremacy. Some say the courses are long overdue. Others see them as a threat to open debate and free speech.
Pitt administrators declined to make anyone available to talk to GBH News for this story, but in a promotional video history professor Alaina Roberts explains the objective of the one-credit, online course.
“With the recent protests, with the Black Lives Matter movement, people wonder, 'What is this all about?'” Roberts says. “And so this course is really to help people understand that what we're experiencing right now, what we’re hearing, what we're seeing right now is a result of decades, hundreds of years of the exploitation of Black people — of the suppression of their rights.”
The course is called Anti-Black Racism: History, Ideology and Resistance. It’s modeled after a similar class on anti-Semitism that faculty designed in response to the 2018 murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The course features lectures from scholars across disciplines, including sociology, epidemiology and American history.
“The violence during Reconstruction and afterward, like the Tulsa massacre, show us that many white Americans didn’t agree that Black people were equal to them, and they didn’t agree that Black people should be able to be economically successful,” Roberts explains in a lecture called Who Belongs in the Reconstructed United States. “I’d like you to think about what has changed and what hasn’t changed since the 1920s," she says, looking into the camera.
The course often cites research by Ibram X. Kendi, the Boston University scholar who launched the Center for Anti-Racist Research on campus just a month after George Floyd’s murder.
“Dr. Ibram is clear when he asserts, ‘The opposite of racist isn’t not racist. It is anti-racist.’ Racist is not a fixed identity. Everyone is capable of change," says Cheryl Ruffin, Pitt’s Institutional Equity Manager, in a lecture called How to be Antiracist.
Khalil Muhammad, who teaches the history of race and racism at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, supports these new anti-racism courses and hopes more colleges mandate them.
“As we prepare students for being citizens of the world, of which every college or university that I'm aware of says so at some point, how can they possibly take responsibility for making things better if they can't understand how they were broken or designed in the first place?” he said.
“If you create enough trust in the classroom and give people enough time to work with the material," Muhammad added, "a lot of things can happen in terms of their learning.”
Others disagree. Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which promotes academic freedom, sees colleges' attempts to reduce racism as "high-minded" but "problematic."
“The moment you replace intellectual liberation with doctrine — with something that is presented as the right way to proceed, you're undercutting what the university is supposed to do, which is to encourage question and dissent,” said Polikoff, who believes labeling something "racist" or "anti-racist" is likely to be a conversation stopper.
“To be put into that bucket of 'racist,' which, according to Ibram Kendi, everybody who's not anti-racist, according to his definition, falls into, that's pretty devastating for a student or faculty member,” he said.
If you create enough trust in the classroom and give people enough time to work with the material, a lot of things can happen in terms of their learning.Khalil Muhammad, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government
At Pitt, some students say they were surprised to see the anti-racism course pop up on their class schedule in late August.
“Because it came up so last-minute and it was a short thing, we kind of did not take it seriously,” said Boaz Moser, a first-year student from Glenside, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb.
As a conservative opposed to considering race in admissions or hiring, Moser, who's white and planning to major in philosophy, disagrees with much of the curriculum.
“They overlooked other issues of class and just focused very heavily on white versus Black racism, which I found a little reductive,” he said.
At times, Moser said, applying the lessons of the anti-racism course to real life undermines debate.
“If I go to the university or some of the activists there and say, ‘Hey, I think there's nuance and I don't actually harbor prejudice against African-Americans, then they just look at me and say, ‘Oh, well, that's your privilege talking,’” he said.
India Krug, another first-year student who's a white progressive from rural Pennsylvania, says she appreciates the course's focus on what she considers her race’s “unearned benefits.”
"White privilege doesn't mean that your life isn't hard,” she said. “White privilege means that your life isn’t hard because of your race, and once we can get over this involuntary reaction from white people to be defensive, we can start being comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Sydney Massenberg, now a law student at New York University, is still pushing Pitt to require students to take a Black studies course. So far, more than 7,300 people have signed her petition.
She thinks the new anti-racism course needs to be supplemented with a Black studies course and even more than that.
“Racism is definitely not going to be something we eradicate by putting students in a couple of classes,” she said. “Being an anti-racist requires a lifetime of work on everyone's part.”
Supporters and critics of these new courses agree on at least one thing: They predict more colleges will require anti-racism 101 soon.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misplaced Western Washington University. It’s in Bellingham, not Spokane.
GBH's Diane Adame contributed to this report.