by Gabby Kiser
Gabby Kiser is a junior from Williamsburg, Virginia majoring in English and minoring in History. This is her first summer with the Race & Racism Project. She is also the general manager of WDCE 90.1 FM, a design editor for The Messenger, and a Bunk content wrangler.
During my first visit to the University of Richmond campus in 2016, my mom commented “A lot has changed since I visited here.” She had visited the university two decades earlier when she was considering colleges. She told me that she hadn’t even applied to UR because of how divided it seemed, both by gender and by race. I never asked too much more about the topic, though, and she never brought it up. We were convinced that something had happened between our visits to make the University of Richmond a new, more inclusive place. I often forget that this was my introduction to the University.
Coming from a very white high school, the idea of a diverse university excited me. I was, and still am, eager to learn about experiences and viewpoints other than my own. Still, when I heard during freshman orientation that the class of 2021 was the most diverse class in Richmond’s history up until that point and I looked around, I wondered if this “more than before” idea was enough. It was a letdown, an, “Okay, this is the best we can do?” kind of moment.
This memory made me interested in finding “diversity” in the Race & Racism Project’s subject list. In browsing the items, I came across a 1978 yearbook feature claiming that the population of the University was “more diverse” than ever before. 1978’s diverse student body, however, was exciting in that they represented more of white America than just Virginia. These students came from a range of places, such as “Delaware, Tennessee, Maryland, West Virginia, New York, North Carolina, Connecticut, Florida, Pennsylvania, and, of course, New Jersey.” The article also makes a point of Richmond’s status “as the capital of the old confederacy,” elaborating that it gives the city “a richness of heritage.” This quality is supposed to make it all the more surprising that such a wide range of white students are beginning to attend the school. This article’s excitement comes off as especially strange when considering that Westhampton College and Richmond College’s first black students arrived ten years earlier. Outside of Richmond, diversity in higher education was a hot topic; the seminal Supreme Court case on affirmative action, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, was decided the same year as the yearbook’s release. In the case, the Supreme Court decided that race could be one factor of many used in the admissions process, thus protecting affirmative action, yet rigid racial quotas violated the Equal Protection Clause. Still, white students from Connecticut managed to be a more riveting example of diversity for the 1978 University of Richmond annual.
Again, black students had been at the University of Richmond for over 10 years when the yearbook bragged about out-of-state students bringing oh-so-valuable geographical diversity to the table. Where the contributions of minority students to the campus could have been mentioned, the yearbook chose to flaunt a different kind of diversity, even at a time where racial diversity was, and had been, important in higher education. By occupying themselves with geographical diversity, the University avoided addressing racial diversity, of which they had very little. Ignoring students of color shaped a racist campus climate for those who were at Richmond. The contrast between this ignorance and the awareness exhibited through affirmative action policies by other educational institutions at the same time enhanced the racist environment that the University of Richmond fostered.
What I managed to find just by searching the website’s subject list made me all the more excited to seek out similar pieces in the archive and bring them to light.