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Carolyn Thomas

Provost and vice president for academic affairsAnti-racism is:

Understanding that undoing the legacies of racism in society takes self-work.

Undoing Systemic Racism is Key to Anti-Racism Journey

In 1992, while I was a Cal State Fullerton student studying abroad in Germany, Black motorist Rodney King was beaten by police officers. Those officers were subsequently acquitted, and civil unrest broke out in Los Angeles.

In our shared kitchen, my European floormates asked me to explain why.

It was the first time I recall being asked to explain U.S. racism and its relationship to policing, and I found myself struggling. No doubt, this was in part because my father had been a police officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. Processing it with foreigners led me to see my culture through different eyes and reset my point of view. I returned to CSUF and changed my major to American Studies to question power and imagine a better future.

In 2014, after years as a professor of American studies at UC Davis, I started a new job overseeing educational outcomes for undergraduates. That’s what put me in the car one afternoon with Director of Admissions Walter Robinson. We talked about our minoritized students and why they disproportionately struggled in writing and STEM courses.

Carolyn Thomas

I wondered if they were “ready” for college.

Walter explained that these students were often the best achievers in their high schools from across the state. Those schools, though, were often under-resourced. As a result, when they came to college, they struggled to compete with more privileged peers. It wasn’t that they were not ready. It was that they had not yet been provided with equal educational opportunity.

With support, they would thrive. With support, we could undo the structural racism of public education in the state, ensure they get degrees, and instill confidence to change the world. My point of view changed. “Someone should tell this to the faculty,” I remember saying. Walter smiled at me and said, “I think that might be you.”

For me, that car ride with Walter was the day that I realized that undoing the effects of systemic racism within higher education was my job, too.

Several years later, it became more personal when I partnered on a new program to support system-impacted students, staff and faculty with UC Davis assistant professor of Chicana/o studies Ofelia Cuevas.

The “Beyond the Stats” students helped me see something I’d known as a scholar but hadn’t connected to personally: that the 20th-century prison complex disproportionately harmed people of color.

I saw my middle-class upbringing as the child of law enforcement parents as built on structural racism and systemic oppression. That was the moment when the work became more than part of my job. It became truly my work to do. Until we have dismantled the oppression still embedded in our structures — legacies of American racism over generations — I, my children and their children won’t be free of its terrible legacy.

As Cal State Fullerton’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, Carolyn Thomas ’94 (B.A. American studies, German) is a member of the President’s Cabinet and leads division engagement in areas of institutional priority. As Chief Academic Officer, she provides leadership for division student success initiatives and the planning and management of academic, instructional, and financial resources supporting teaching and scholarly activities.

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