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UT Austin Professor: School's History Of Segregation And Racism Still Complicates Campus Life Today

Heman Sweatt was admitted to UT Austin's law school in 1950 after winning a court case challenging the "separate but equal" concept.
Neal Douglass photograph courtesy Austin History Center
Heman Sweatt was admitted to UT Austin's law school in 1950 after winning a court case challenging the "separate but equal" concept. UT's Peniel Joseph says segregation and racism in UT's past still impact campus today.

Numbers from UT Austin show that only 5.1% of its students are Black. While the university says the number of Black undergraduates on campus has risen over the past few years, the percentage is still small.

Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracyat UT Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. He said UT is "definitely making efforts" to overcome the segregation and racism of its past, but there is still a lot of difficult work to do to get there.

Following the killings of Breonna Taylorand George Floyd, UT Austin and many other institutions turned their attention to combating systemic racism through more robust diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. UT's plansare grouped into two areas:

  • recruiting and retaining diverse faculty, students and staff; and
  • rethinking campus names and symbols and aligning those with current values.

Joseph said he believes the small size of the Black community on UT's campus can be traced back to the school's treatment of Black students, faculty and staff for decades.
UT Austin announced it would start admitting Black students in 1956 following the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. But that step was "not necessarily out of a commitment to racial integration or racial justice," Joseph said, but rather because UT "really want[ed] to control the way in which racial integration happens."

After they were first admitted, Black undergrads were discriminated against in dorms and housing and were not allowed to join fraternities or sports teams, Joseph said. Black faculty and teaching assistants were not hired until the 1960s.

Joseph said plans like the ones UT announced this summer represent an important step in the fight against systemic racism, though he would have "liked to have seen this without the pressure of a thousand suns on the administration." 

Does Joseph think UT can change? He says yes, but more needs to be done.

“Words are important, but we'll only be judged and measured by our deeds in the aftermath of this moment that we're in,” he said.

Listen to the interview or read the transcript below to hear more from Joseph about UT's history with racism and what he says it's like to be a Black faculty member at UT now.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Peniel Joseph: UT, the university, has a long history of racial segregation that was mandated by the state. Initially, UT is open to [Black] undergraduates starting in 1956. And even that first class of [Black] students over the next almost really two decades are going to receive really marginalized education, not be allowed to join fraternities or to join sports teams. There's going to be discrimination in terms of the dorms and housing. The campus for many years doesn't have any Black faculty or even teaching assistants until the 1960s.

This is a long, persistent history that a lot of times we try to paper over, especially through athletics. When we think about the desegregation of football and the desegregation of sports, sometimes because of the Earl Campbells and the Ricky Williamses, we say we're all getting along here. But that sort of hides and masks a different history of inequality and really the persistence in there with the small numbers of undergraduates but also really the small, minuscule numbers of Black faculty and staff.

KUT: You are a Black faculty member here at UT Austin. What is it like to teach and work here?

Joseph: Teaching and working here is complicated. When you're Black faculty here, you're both under extraordinary pressure to help and connect the scholarship and expertise you're doing with students, and at the same time, you have a university that's really shying away from that. It was founded as trying to create a university of the first class. And you can't have that with racial segregation, and you can't have that with the marginalization of Black and Latinx and other students of color.

So even as we've had much more of a presence because of African-American studies; because of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement; because of the efforts to connect and have community engagement with the East Side [of Austin]; and I run a center for the study of race and democracy— things are still compartmentalized because there's not a university-wide acceptance. For instance, we all don't know the history of just racial integration at UT.  

KUT: Take us back then to the 1950s and the first Black students coming to UT.

Joseph: The university is doing it right after the Brown Supreme Court decision, May 17, 1954. The university sort of preemptively says, starting in 1955, that the next year they're going to open up the student body to African-American students. But they do so not necessarily out of a commitment to racial integration or racial justice; they do so because they really want to control the way in which racial integration happens.

There's going to be admittance of Black students, but they're going to set up really an enrollment restriction plan. There's going to be a test that Black students are taking. There's going to be maybe 100, 110 Black students who enroll in the fall of 1956. And it's going to be a lonely road for those students.

People are very, very fearful of interracial intimacy between Black and white students, Black and white students being able to attend the same dances and mixers, being able to be in physical proximity to each other, both in classes, but also at the Texas Student Union, which is where everybody gathered. Those students aren't going to be able to participate in the full social and cultural college experience in any kind of way that we would say is racially integrated until really the 1970s.

KUT: For institutions that have made progress in this area — what work have they done?  

Joseph: UT is definitely making efforts. What others have done is really: One, you've got to have curriculum and pedagogical changes and transformations. So the burden can't just be on Black studies and Mexican-American studies, Latino and Latinx studies, to try to teach the history of an institution. So, not just about racial justice nationally and globally and writ large, but of the specific institution.

Another is going to be in terms of utilizing the resources of the university to leverage equity and equality both at the university or within communities of color that have been historically marginalized by that institution. Instead of thinking about racial justice or any reparative efforts as ancillary and tertiary, it's really making them central to the academic experience, to the research experience, the coeducational and the cultural experience that students have. So that means transforming policies. That means certainly active recruitment of students, faculty and staff. But it also means a commitment by administrators that goes beyond lip service, that goes beyond performative politics.

Can we change it? I would say yes. But you have to have deep personal sincerity and political integrity and, yes, courage, because you have to say you're going to do something that's morally right whether people of different political persuasions might disagree with you.

KUT: Do you see courage, integrity and sincerity at play in the plans that UT has released?

Joseph: Yeah. You know, I hope so. You measure people's sincerity and you measure the integrity through not just process, but outcomes. I would have, of course, liked to have seen this without the pressure of a thousand suns on the administration. But we live in the United States where historically it's taken that kind of pressure to get change and transformation.

But the fact that it's being done at all is important. But much more needs to be done. Words are important, but we'll only be judged and measured by our deeds in the aftermath of this moment that we're in.

Note: KUT staff members are employees of UT Austin as KUT is licensed to the university.

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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