Institutional transformation stories: Insights on racial equity from Dr. Estela Bensimon


Racial equity is a critical issue for colleges and universities to address, particularly as the COVID-19 crisis has exposed—and magnified—continued inequities in the higher education system.

Dr. Estela Bensimon, founder of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California, is one of the nation’s leading scholars on racial equity and has advised institutions and organizations across the nation on the issue. She was recently named one of the 2020 winners of the prestigious Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education, which recognizes education leaders that have had a transformative impact on the field.

The Postsecondary Success team recently caught up with Dr. Bensimon and asked her to reflect on decades of experience in the field and offer practical advice to higher education leaders and practitioners.

What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in higher education’s conversation about racial equity in recent years?

When I founded the Center for Urban Education in 1995, hardly anyone spoke about equity and surely not racial equity. But everyone talked about diversity and there was an assumption that diversity covered “all.” As someone who experienced the 1960s civil rights struggles, I was concerned that diversity was leaving the civil rights fight for racial justice behind.

In the mid-1990s, talk of racial equity was viewed with suspicion. My work was characterized, pejoratively, as “activist” and “divisive” and I was advised by well-meaning people that it would be better to focus on income as the disparity in need of repair. Now the term “equity” has replaced “diversity,” and while I am cautiously optimistic, I worry that the term is used superficially, to check off the “wokeness” box, but then go on as usual.

The reason I wrote Reclaiming Racial Justice in Equity was out of concern that even though equity is now invoked throughout higher education, it does not encompass an understanding of its critical and anti-racist foundations. Until recently, I also used the term “equity,” but in the last couple of years I started to qualify it as “racial equity as a way of signaling that it is equity for groups who have suffered the consequences of enslavement, colonization, and genocide.

So to answer the question more directly, I think what has changed is the willingness to talk about equity and to use the term, but what still needs to change is the recognition that whiteness—as a process, value, and practice—is the obstacle to racial equity.

What are some common mistakes institutional and organizational leaders make in approaching the subject of racial equity? 

  • Mistake 1: Assuming that in not being overtly racist they are doing the right thing, even when their language and initiatives never mention race, racism, or anti-racism.
  • Mistake 2:  Related to Mistake #1, assuming that initiatives that have been designed with “all students” in mind or that caring for “all students” signifies equity.
  • Mistake 3: Related to #1 and #2, claiming to not see race, believing that color-blindness is a virtue.
  • Mistake 4: Diverting the focus away from racial equity by pointing to poor white people, rural students, foster children, etc.
  • Mistake 5: Claiming to care about racial equity, initiating special programs and efforts to honor “Black Lives Matter,” but leaving existing structures and practices (e.g. hiring of faculty, curriculum, governance) grounded in whiteness intact.

If you could offer one piece of advice to campus leaders looking to advance racial equity conversations in the current environment, what would it be?

I would probably say that it is not about having conversations in the abstract and feeling good about them. My advice would be: 1) acknowledge that institutionalized racism runs through the arteries of the institution you lead and resolve to “see” it and get rid of it; and 2) recognize that dismantling institutionalized racism requires knowledge and expertise of how racialization is manifested. Just as you would hire an expert in enrollment management or strategic planning, you need to hire experts who have the know-how and tools to create an action plan to uproot institutionalized racism. It cannot be done overnight, and it cannot be done by treating racial equity as an ad-hoc activity.

Racial inequity is a problem of performance, socialization, organizational learning, and power disparities. Institutional leaders need to learn how to be race conscious (in a positive and critical way) and to continuously interrogate why their ways of doing things work for white students but not for racially minoritized students.