At UF, black students feel a reckoning on race is long overdue

University of Florida student Tyra Striker, center, explains a team-building exercise to students at the Bridges Minority Outreach retreat on campus recently. [Special to the Times   |   Kasamba Kokayi]
University of Florida student Tyra Striker, center, explains a team-building exercise to students at the Bridges Minority Outreach retreat on campus recently. [Special to the Times | Kasamba Kokayi]
Published Aug. 31, 2018

GAINESVILLE — Tyra Striker went to the Dollar Tree that first, lonely winter and came back to her residence hall at the University of Florida with four sheets of black posterboard and spray-on glitter. On the floor of her dorm's communal kitchen, she stenciled and cut out letters in shimmery gold.

She'd printed out photos at the library, and now she taped them up, a gallery of faces she hoped would remind her of her own power. Kamala Harris and Viola Davis. Issa Rae and Barack Obama. Her Black Wall of Excellence.

She'd been showing up to club meetings alone, and parties, too, trying to find her place in the awkward stew of freshman year, on a campus where a meager 6 percent of undergraduates are black.

She had understood UF to be overwhelmingly white but didn't quite anticipate how that would make her feel. She had a creeping sense that she didn't belong here.

She used sticky tack to hang her gallery for all to see on her Beaty Towers door.

Days passed. Then one of her roommates asked: Did you take down your poster? Well, it's outside on the floor.

Striker wondered if it had just fallen. She couldn't know for sure.

• • •

It's been an exhausting few years for black students at the state's flagship university.

More than white nationalist Richard Spencer's takeover of campus, more than students of color wrangled offstage at last spring's graduation, black students say what grinds them down is the everyday isolation.

In interviews and a 2016 climate survey, many say UF makes them feel their minority status, whether they're the sole black student in Biochem or they're assumed to be from the community college down the road. They say distressingly few professors look like them and that they're treated as the de facto spokespeople for all things black.

They share stories: How a professor mixes up the names of the only two black women in class. How white students see them at night and cross the street.

Such pervasive isolation erodes the quality of education, experts say, and poses a challenge to UF, now among the nation's top 10 public universities, all with similar, single-digit black enrollment.

Leaders say UF is working on its campus climate, recruitment and transparency to address deep-rooted racial tension.

"As we become more selective and become higher-ranked, we don't want to lose the soul of the university — that it's a university intended, as all public universities are, for all people," President Kent Fuchs said.

UF's new chief diversity officer knows he has his work cut out for him and anticipates painful conversations.

Students remain wary, saying inclusion must go far beyond assertions that "Every Gator Counts."

"They're going to do anything that makes them look attractive and gets them into the No. 1 spot," said Striker, now 20, a junior. "They do things on the surface, and they don't go beyond that."

• • •

Striker had hoped her near-perfect GPA would get her into the Harvard of historically black institutions, but Howard University said no. So from diverse King High School in Tampa, she arrived in Gainesville. She soon overheard her two roommates talking about their votes for Donald Trump, and whatever loneliness she felt hardened into something more bitter.

She tried to seek out black friends but lingered at the edge of Black Student Union parties, unsure of how to break into UF's black universe. Sometimes, she was the only black girl in class. She felt judged just for existing.

Then came the noose, a prop from a theater practice accidentally left in a classroom. Then the whiteboard covered in racial slurs during Black History Month. Then her downed poster.

UF already had issues with race. From 10 percent black enrollment in 2009, the number had kept dropping.

Fraternity brothers made headlines in 2012 for pimp costumes and blackface. Two years later, graffiti was painted on a campus bridge — "Thug Lives Don't Matter."

UF launched a task force on black affairs and hosted town halls.

Striker attended a few and left deflated. She heard affirmation but wanted action, like more black faculty — less than 4 percent are black — and reduced emphasis on test scores in admissions, as they've been proven to weigh down minority students.

Over time, Striker found her niche on campus, in fashion and activism. But broader controversy dogged UF. Richard Spencer rented space for a speech last fall, despite the school's disavowal of his racist rhetoric. Striker joined a mass protest, gratified by the solidarity she felt as she chanted with the crowd.

She was less satisfied by the alternate event officials put on, a livestream called #TogetherUF. She worried the school just wanted to look like it cared.

• • •

Talk to students and you hear common threads.

Dissonance from the culture of an old Southern school — the tailgates and mostly white fraternities, the median family income sitting at $118,000.

Weariness of unchallenged tradition, like how the Stephen O'Connell Center, where most students graduate, still bears the name of the university president who fought integration.

"Questions about my hair, surprise that my parents are married, or shock that I can swim," one student said in the survey. Assumptions that black students got in because they're black.

These students know of Virgil Hawkins, a black man denied entry into the College of Law in 1949. Hawkins battled in court for years before agreeing, in 1958, to withdraw his application in exchange for a state Supreme Court order desegregating UF's graduate-level schools.

Yet more than a decade later, just 343 of 20,000 students were black. In 1971, on what came to be known as "Black Thursday," some 67 black students were arrested for protesting in O'Connell's office. A third of black students left UF.

The university opened an Institute of Black Culture and launched the African-American Studies program. It expanded scholarships and academic support. But the problems linger. The crumbling two-story IBC, a cultural hub for black students, was demolished for reconstruction but has remained an overgrown lot for nearly a year. The project is now out to bid.

That's the kind of thing students notice.

"They put us on promotional fliers," said recent graduate Oliver Telusma, "but when we have needs that need to be addressed, time and time again the university turns a blind eye."

"They kind of put a Band-Aid on things that are really deep-seated," said African-American Studies professor Vincent Adejumo.

"I'm tired of talking," said Black Student Union president Akil Reynolds. "I'm not saying anything new."

• • •

Last year, the task force made several recommendations, from appointing diversity officers in each department to marketing more toward black students. Members said UF staff could no longer afford to view inclusion as someone else's responsibility.

The university has chipped away at those goals, launching a black cultural living-learning community, relaunching an orientation program for black students and bringing on Antonio Farias as chief diversity officer and senior adviser.

As Farias settled in this summer, he acknowledged UF's reality: Its relationship with race, past and present, is fraught. He wants to bridge fragmented departments, beleaguered faculty and frustrated students, opening up discussions about fear and identity.

And, he said, UF's ambitions must remain rooted in access, making the path clear for students who aren't versed in the "invisible playbook" of privilege.

"It's not just changing admissions. It's, 'Where are we unintentionally discriminating or impeding access?' " Farias said.

Florida's ban on race-based admissions, plus UF's rising ranks and more competitive applicant pool, can make the goal of diversity more difficult. UF has to ensure that it's not losing students of color to other top schools — especially in states with more need-based aid.

Student body president Ian Green, who is black, has launched Bridges, an initiative with UF admissions that reaches into Florida high schools to give underrepresented students academic support and help visiting campus.

UF also offers resources like the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars Program, which each year supports 350 low-income, first-generation students.

Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center, says UF can do more. Nearly 22 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in Florida are black. His research found that, while black men make up just 2.2 percent of UF undergraduates, they comprise 78 percent of football and basketball teams.

"It's ridiculous," Harper said. "The University of Florida absolutely knows how to go and find black male recruits when they want them to make millions of dollars for them in their revenue-generating sports."

• • •

In May, Striker sat in the crowd at the O'Connell Center, waiting for her sorority sisters to pick up their diplomas. Graduates beamed as they strode past the school seal, some doing the Gator chomp, others taking selfies. A marshal urged slow-moving students offstage with an outstretched arm. One graduate did a back flip.

Two hours in, a black student broke into a small celebration dance, called strolling, to represent his fraternity. The marshal grabbed him. The crowd booed. The next graduate, Oliver Telusma, his fraternity brother, tried the same thing, but the marshal tangled with him in a bear hug while the booing grew louder. Minutes later, another black student dancing onstage was grabbed so roughly her cap fell off.

Soon the videos would go viral. The New York Times and Buzzfeed would cover the story. Students would explain that the incident wouldn't have blown up if the university wasn't already a powder keg. Telusma would say he felt worst for his family, who had to watch their son handled like a "savage animal."

Fuchs would say that, while he didn't think the marshal had a racist intent, the result was racist. He would call the students to apologize, and the university would overhaul its graduation procedures.

But in that moment, Striker felt only anger.

A few years into her UF career, she was proud, with reservations, to be a Gator. She'd endured. She'd had moments of true belonging, like the time she cried in the Reitz Union, swag surfing with a sea of black freshmen as she helped out with an orientation program.

Then she watched the university president stay in his seat at graduation. Maybe he didn't see what was happening. But to Striker, to many in the audience watching on the Jumbotron, the divide was clear as day.

Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or