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Stay Woke – Diversity Programs In Universities Are Essential

Written by: Michael Thompson, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


The United States is a diverse country. Opportunity abounds. The chance to receive an education, achieve greater social mobility, and enter middle to upper-class life is possible. The problem: it only works for some. Marginalized people that lack generational wealth, schools dependent on shrinking tax bases that impact academic instruction, infrastructure, and the quality of education, gerrymandering resulting in lack of representation, incarceration, and the sequela that follows with the inability to secure adequate jobs, housing, health disparities, language, and cultural barriers all converge creating a vicious cycle that reduces the chance to assimilate into middle or upper-class life.

A photo of a happy group of friends.

One must be aware that racial and social injustices breed inequality. Education is an essential factor to help marginalized populations overcome inequality. Those who have received a college education have a greater chance of securing a job, which enables them to have health insurance, continuous income, plan for their future, and help to establish the transfer of generational wealth—recognizing that racial and social injustices exist and offering programs to circumvent their negative impact is considered being too "woke" by some. This, however, is not the true definition of woke. Being woke is the opposite. "Stay woke" is a term incorporated into the lexicon of African Americans since the 1930s and means to be aware of social and racial injustices that exist in society. Despite this, some politicians in power use this term as a pejorative and claim that being "woke" is an extreme left-wing liberal ideology. If one cares about the impact of racial and social injustice on sectors of our population, then being woke is not bad. You're acknowledging another group's humanity. Yet, almost as in a dystopic, doublethink manner (for those who have read George Orwell's 1984), some individuals I power firmly accept that being woke is terrible and have reframed its real meaning as being extreme. Just think, good is bad, and bad is good. Amazing. Where did the term come from, and how can anti-woke sentiment hurt university programs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion? Let's first briefly review the historical origins of the word 'woke.'

In 1931, nine young Black men were falsely accused of sexual assault involving two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama. As a result, they became known as the Scottsboro Boys, and handling of this case drew national attention as it exposed the intense racism and inequality of the Alabama criminal justice system. They were arrested and remained in jail even though one of the women admitted that the allegations were false. As a reminder, Jim Crow laws were in effect and racial discrimination was open and rampant throughout the South. In 1938, a well-known Black singer named Lead Belly recorded a song in their honor called Scottsboro Boys. The song warned Blacks to be careful and aware of racism when traveling through Alabama. At the song's end, he warned Blacks to "stay woke" to the flourishing racial injustice of the time. In other words, be aware and vigilant about existing racial and social injustice. This word flourished, in one way or another, in the African American community, and its' true definition is described in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as follows:

"Woke: aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)"

Today, however, the meaning of the word "woke" has been hijacked and used as a pejorative for those who espouse being "colorblind" and refusing to accept that everyone has not had the same opportunities for success. Think of a world without empathy for those who are different or the recipients of decades, even centuries, of racial hatred, social isolation, and discrimination. Moreover, academic success in college can be affected by lived experiences along the lines of race, culture, religion, health, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, and so forth. As a result, individuals who fall into these categories may require additional resources to help overcome barriers preventing them from completing college. This is why universities should have diversity, equity, and inclusion programs to facilitate academic success and, in doing so, help to improve social mobility in marginalized groups.

Universities that recognize diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of their mission help college students from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed. Those championing the cause of "anti-woke" do an incredible disservice and work to prevent this positive outcome. You can only have equality once there is equity. Many don't appreciate the difference between these terms:1

  • Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities.

  • Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome

For example, students of color may have cultural or structural barriers that may work to reduce the chances of successful completion of college. Offering a program that allows them to be mentored by those from similar backgrounds or to develop workshops related to their deficiencies to empower them are all possible actions these programs can perform. An example of this can be found at the University of Florida's Office of Diversity in a two-semester program called PODEMAS for Latinx students.2 A few of the services they provide, as listed on their website, include:

  • Academic success and professionalization program activities

  • Bi-weekly seminars regarding a variety of topics

  • Expose students to the Hispanic-Latinx community in the city for support

  • Mentorship and Workshops (examples)

Students from minority and low-income communities may have unique problems as they begin college due to cultural or socioeconomic reasons, which may contribute to lower graduation rates. Significant racial differences exist in 5-year graduation rates between White, Black, and Latino students in the United States.3 For instance, the five-year college graduation rate for bachelor degrees for Whites is 62.2%. In addition, 59.1% of all college students are White or Caucasian in the U.S. The graduation rate for Latino students is 41.5%, and only 13.1% of college graduates are Latino. The problem is worse with African American or Black students. These students have a five-year graduation rate of 40.5%, but only 1.0% of college graduates are Black or African American. Thus, programs that provide opportunities that help overcome barriers to academic success are hugely beneficial for minority students, especially in predominately white institutions. Thus, recognizing diversity and providing activities to help overcome hindrances to equality can help improve student success.

DIE programs will vary from one university to another based on the identified needs of the populations being served. Programs that deal with LGBQT+ issues, discrimination, gender-related problems, autism, and veteran issues are all potential populations that can benefit from DEI because they all have unique experiences that potentially hinder academic success. The rhetoric against these programs is not based on the need to respect differences between individuals. Stay woke because we are as strong as our weakest link.

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Michael Thompson, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Dr. Michael Thompson is an author, retired college professor and a fierce advocate for promoting diversity, inclusion and equity for marginalized populations. As a child and teenager during the Civil Rights Movement, he brings an insightful perspective showing how social and racial inequalities of the past continue to impact today's quest for diversity, equity and inclusion in the areas of education, health, policy and social mobility. He is the author of the book, The Shameful Misbranding of “Woke”: Stop Fueling Culture Wars and Discrimination. He is also a social and racial justice content creator on various social media platforms.




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