The Great Divide: Racial disparities on the UW-Madison campus and throughout Wisconsin

Students of all races and ethnicities advocate for diversity on campus. Photo Credit:

By Rebecca Otis

Scrolling through Facebook and other social media platforms is a common activity between classes for University of Wisconsin-Madison students campus, but in early 2016 they came across some images they weren’t expecting.

At the top of Bascom Hill, student after student holding whiteboards began to emerge, each with a different but resounding message about the UW campus. The white boards said things such as, “You’re from South Side Chicago, right? I’m surprised you talk really well,” and “It’s because you’re Asian.” Each of these messages was also followed by #TheRealUW.

The images opened up a dialogue of racism and discrimination on the UW campus in an entirely new medium. However, this kind of pushback on the UW administration, regarding racism and discrimination, wasn’t the first. Some of the first racially-charged protests that took place on the campus date back to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Two years after The Real UW campaign began gaining interest, the UW administration responded with a plan.

In April of 2018, Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced a multi-faceted effort to address the history of racism on the UW-Madison campus, according to the Associated Press. Blank’s plan included honoring those who fought against prejudice on campus by sharing their stories in an exhibit in the Memorial Union. It also included hiring four new ethnic studies professors as well as recruiting faculty from underrepresented groups.

These plans were a step forward in addressing racial issues on campus, and they also aided in reducing the ‘extreme’ racial disparities at UW-Madison and throughout the state of Wisconsin.

By Rebecca Otis

In 2017, Wisconsin was rated one of the worst states for racial disparities, according to a report done by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS). The report focused on the disparities between white and black communities and found considerable gaps in unemployment, education, incarceration and multiple other categories.

Wisconsin was also rated as the worst state in the country for black Americans by 24/7 Wall St., as cited by the Huffington Post. The report done by 24/7 Wall St. found similar categorical disparities to the COWS report.

The UW-Madison follows suit with the rest of the state.

When broken down by race, the UW-Madison student and faculty demographics show inconsistencies.

The number of black students at UW-Madison hit 846 in the 2008-2009 academic year, while the number of white students was around 24,000, according to the UW System Student Statistics database. In the current 2017-2018 academic year, the divergence between the number of black and white students remains unchanged.

Paralleling the student body’s racial disparity, the demographic break down of the faculty at UW-Madison also shows a void between the races. Faculty members who identify as either black or African American amount to 2 percent of the overall faculty, according to the UW-Madison annual Data Digest report. White faculty members account for over three-quarters of the overall faculty.

Multiple initiatives and organizations have also been created to address the racial disparities on the UW-Madison campus as well as throughout the state.

Pamela E. Oliver is a professor in sociology at UW-Madison, and she began The Wisconsin Racial Disparity Project. Most of Oliver’s work has looked at the racial disparity in incarceration rates in the state, but she has also looked at other topics related to racial disparities such as the recovery of The Black Lives Matter Movement and other black activism.

In the case of the racial disparity in the UW-Madison faculty, Oliver sees progress.  

“It is my impression that the current UW-Madison administration has recently been implementing such incentives and has been increasing minority faculty, but there is surely more to do,” Oliver said.

There are a variety of things stacked against the progression towards a more racially proportionate faculty at UW-Madison. The first is a tendency to hire faculty that resembles the faculty of the past, Oliver said.     

“It usually takes some kind of push to break up that old way of doing things. Once you get a different mix of faculty, then they can continue the process of change,” Oliver said.

One form of this “push” that Oliver talks about is activism. This includes the images produced by The Real UW campaign and the conversations that ensued.

“It has often been the case in the past that activists and protests have created the pressure for change,” Oliver said.  

Another issue is the retention rate for African American faculty members Oliver said. Some African American faculty members hired on by the university decided to leave shortly after.

“They found the City of Madison to be a racist and an uncomfortable place for African Americans to live,” Oliver said.

Raveena Singh, a student of color at UW-Madison, has had a similar experience. She is in her senior year at the university, and she has experienced many instances of racism during her college career.

“The racism and discrimination on campus aren’t very pronounced sometimes. It’s subtle, but it still doesn’t feel very good,” Singh said.

Being 100 percent Indian, Singh sometimes feels alienated from other students on campus, she said. People often don’t identify her race correctly because of how dark her skin color is, often thinking she is black or another race.

Singh said she is excited to hear that the university is making an effort to hire more faculty from underrepresented groups.

“I almost never have professors of color. Most of them are White, and I feel like this does psychologically take a toll on me,” Singh said.

In the future, Singh hopes the university will eventually become more diverse she said.  

“I’m graduating in the spring, but I hope that the university continues to make an effort to diversify the campus for future students. I think this will help students and faculty of color to feel more comfortable on campus,” Singh said.  


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