How Inequality and Discrimination Affect Chicano University and College Students

The Chicano studies emerged in the 1960s following the civil rights movement and the need for increased opportunities for minorities to join universities. Like other minority groups such as the Native Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans, the people with Mexican origin living in the United States experienced racial discrimination for a long period of time. The participation of the Chicanos in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s helped the racial group to express their challenges caused by racial discrimination and cultural alienation (Kretzman and McKnight 3). Due to the discriminatory nature of the U.S. legislation, most Mexican Americans have not been able to access university education.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the factors that have led to unequal access to opportunities in higher education among Chicano students using the Critical Race Theory (CRT). The paper also explains the nature and extent of discrimination against Chicanos in U.S. universities, and how the members of the community have reacted to discriminatory practices in education. Although universities do not advertise a school environment where Whites enjoy privileges while people of color are excluded, Chicanos often face racial micro-aggressions, cultural exclusion, and racism; and these racial experiences can be addressed through Chicano studies, community empowerment, and mentorship programs.

The experiences of inequality and discrimination among the Chicanos have a long history since the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 (Kretzman and McKnight 8). Before the war, California was part of Mexico, but through the Treaty of Guadalupe, California was transferred to the U.S. Consequently, Anglo-Americans and other Americans began to their settle in California. After 1870s, legislations the U.S. government passed discriminatory laws such as land taxation which caused wealthy landowners from Mexico to lose land through court battles (Lawrence 2238). Industrialization also required trained and skilled workers, and the untrained Mexicans lost their jobs. In the 1960s, Chicanos joined the civil rights movement to fight against discrimination and cultural alienation (Kretzman and McKnight 12). Despite legal implementation of universal civil rights following the struggle, most minority groups remained less privileged than white majorities in all public spaces, including educational institutions.

The Critical Race Theory

The Critical Race Theory may be used to explore the nature of racial experiences of Chicanos in higher education. According to Yosso et al (662), the Critical Race Theory (CRT) emerged out of critical legal studies to explain the significance of race and the nature of racism in the United States. CRT was used by its scholars to criticize the social exclusion and separation between Whites and the people of color, and the failure of the civil rights legislations (Solorzano and Yosso 482). The theory can be used to explore how Chicanos, among other minority groups, continue to experience and react to societal racism and oppression.

There are five principles that guide Critical Race Theory. First, the theory is based on the idea that race and racism are intercentric. Yosso et al (662) suggests that race is a permanent and integral element of U.S. societies; and racism interrelates for other aspects of subordination such as sexism, sexuality, gender bias, language barriers, cultural exclusion, immigration status, and segregation according to class. Secondly, CRT challenges the dominant ideologies of the mainstream society such as claims for equal opportunity, race neutrality, and objectivity. According to Huber and Solorzano (232), common claims of equality often promote the power, privileges, and interests of dominant groups of the society. The third tenet of CRT is that the scholars of the theory are committed to social justice. The proponents and supporters of CRT believe in the convergence of interests and gains of the civil rights movement, such as equal access to higher education (Taylor 546). Based on the Critical Race Theory, social justice can be achieved through the eradication of poverty, racism, and sexism (Lawrence 2243). Moreover, the empowerment of subordinated groups is a necessary step towards equality and justice.

Critical Race Theory scholars also express the essentiality of experiential knowledge in human societies. Thus, the experiences and social interactions of the people of color such as the Chicanos are essential and authentic in analyzing and understanding racial discrimination (Jain 258). CRT looks into the lived experiences of the Chicanos and other minority racial groups through counter-storytelling of parables, testimonials, chronicles, and family histories. These stories manifest the racial challenges facing the Chicanos in their daily lives, and how they resist the forces of racism and oppression. Lastly, CRT is an interdisciplinary model because it analyzes issues of race within historical and contemporary milieus of multiple domains.

Applying the Critical Race Theory to the Racial Discrimination of Chicanos

A significant number of studies explore the experiences of Chicanos in higher education using the tenets of Critical Race Theory (Yosso et al 663; Solorzano 52; Yosso 69; Ornelas and Solorzano 233). The principles of CRT provide a critical perspective on how the social construction of race has influenced education systems, structures, processes, and practices in universities and other institutions of higher learning. For example, the critical race theory explains the motivations and experiences of minority students who have been injured or abused while fighting against institutionalized forms of racism in their colleges, universities, and other educational facilities. Yosso et al (663) suggests that racism in colleges and universities is pervasive among Chicano students.

CRT plays an important role in examining racism, discovering and naming racist injuries so that victims of racism can discover that they are not alone. Accordingly the Chicano students can have a voice and participate in the struggle and resistance against racial oppression. CRT also reveals racist injuries and hence enables Chicano students to speak and share their experiences, leading to increased concern and understanding of the problems and challenges experienced by the Latinos in educational institutions.

Different Forms of Racism among Chicano Students

Stereotypical assumptions, low expectations, and racially offensive remarks create an antagonistic campus racial climate (Yosso et al 661). The campus racial climate refers to the general environment of colleges and universities that may enhance successful attainment of educational goals and objectives but often lead to poor academic outcomes of learners of color. A positive racial environment at the university involves: inclusion of students, faculty members, and administrators of color; an inclusive curriculum that reflects the current and historical experiences of people of color; educational programs that foster the recruitment, retention and graduation of students of color; and institutional values and rules that encourage diversity and inclusion in school environment (Yosso et al 663). Such characteristics of a positive campus racial climate are often experienced in theory but not in practice.

Predominantly White universities create a diversity of convenience, a form of racial climate that is often practised in universities to increase the number of minority groups. In this regard, university administrators implement superficial policies to portray racial diversity without true commitment to providing equal opportunities to education at the university (Yosso et al 670). Lack of commitment to an inclusive learning environment encourages a hostile racial climate at the university or college. A truly diverse and inclusive environment should include programs to address social inequalities and encourage a participative environment where faculty member, students and administrators of different races are committed and willing to acknowledge the contributions, dignity and welfare of others. In practice, such genuine diversity remains elusive at best.

The stories of Chicanos often show that the campus climate or learning environment in all levels of education affect the attainment of the learning objectives of Chicano students. For instance, a significant number of minority elementary schools are often more segregated, larger, and provide lower financial support than White schools (Solorzano and Solorzano 295). These conditions lead to poor academic attainment in higher levels of education. Language differences make the experiences of minority students more complicated. At the elementary level, students whose first language is not English require quality programs to foster second language learning (SLL); but the situation is often unexpectedly dire for minority learners (Kretzman and McKnight 56). Poor language development at the elementary level affect the learners’ communication and interactions at higher levels of educations.

Shortage of teachers and instructors who can serve the Chicano communities also creates leads to educational experiences and learning outcomes of Chicano students. To ensure that school programs and curricula reflect the social and cultural needs of Latinos, it is important to recruit faculty members who represent the minority interests and understand the culture of the Chicano communities (Solorzano and Solorzano 297). Nonetheless, severe shortage of Latino teachers may hinder the implementation of culture-specific programs in universities and colleges. Lack of teachers with skills and experience in bilingual and special education fields also affect the progress of Latino students in universities and colleges.

Using focus groups, Yosso et al (667) identified significant influence of racial micro-aggressions and racial climate on daily educational experiences of undergraduate Chicano students. The study found out that micro-aggressions and institutionalized campus racial environments in universities affect learners through racial, class, gender, language, and cultural inferences. Interpersonal relations between Chicanos and other dominant social groups in society often result in aggressive behaviors involving verbal and non-verbal insults (Huber et al 6). The narrative of parents also demonstrate how their children have to contend with and/or resist microaggressions and racism. For instance, Bernal Dolores suggests that her family had to leave Eastside schools for a Westside school to avoid the microaggressions, isolation, and alienation constantly facing their children (Bernal and Aleman, Jr. 10). These experiences demonstrate the frustrations and instabilities of Chicano families as they deal with racial discrimination in educational institutions.

Apart from the use of insults, microaggressions against Chicanos are also expressed through visual representations. For example, the ‘Mexican Bandit’ visual was an advertisement published in the Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1970, showing the image of a Chicano revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, lying on the ground with Elgin watches stolen through armed robbery. This story reveals how Chicanos are stereotypically portrayed as ‘dirty and dangerous criminals’ (Huber and Solorzano 225). The visual microaggression adds to the verbal insults meted at Chicano students and other students of color in universities and colleges across the U.S. As suggested by Yosso et al (668), non-verbal racial microaggressions in education systems promote the belief that Whites perceive themselves to be superior to other racial minorities intellectually.

The unprecedented level of interpersonal attacks and microaggressions lead to the disruption of the Chicano students’ learning on campus. The stories told by Chicano students show that the minority students are aware and stressed about their identities as the racial other in an education system full of microaggressions (Yosso et al 667). A Chicana student narrated how she was rejected in a discussion group, making her feel that she is less intelligent than the others.

Through storytelling, Chicano students often exhibit frustrations, stress and distractions in the classroom due to racial insults. For example, Yosso et al (669) describes the experience of one Chicano student who was disrupted by constant thoughts of whether he could be at fault for the racial seating arrangement in the school. The student who was majoring in the Bachelor of Arts noted that no one was willing to sit next to him in the classroom. Consequently, he kept thinking throughout the period when the teacher was in the classroom about the reasons why no one was sitting next to him (Yosso et al 669). Another Chicano student suggested that the university professor relied on the rules of the faculty to avoid meeting students beyond regular office hours, yet in a few moments later made an arrangement to meet with a White student outside the legally stipulated meeting hours

The negative racial climate and interpersonal interactions also cause disappointments, anxiety and loss of concentration in the classroom, leading to poor academic performance and learning outcomes. The racial assumptions and stereotypes about the criminality, intelligence, and cultural contexts of Chicano students often lead to doubts on their academic abilities and sociability (Cuadraz 223). For instance, Latinos face verbal insults when they exercise their cultural practices. One of the narratives presented by one Latino student shows the influence of offensive words during a traditional cultural event. The student was in a group of Latinos dressed in traditional costumes and performing traditional dance when they hear someone insulting them with demeaning words. Thus, the student expressed shock at the affront they faced while exercising their culture at the university.

Such experiences account to poor social skills and academic performance of the Chicano students. Solorzano and Solorzano (293) Chicanas and Chicanos experience low underachievement and high underrepresentation in education, leading to talent loss and low number of role models in educational and professional careers. The poor performance and low representation of Chicanos in college and university education stems from the educational conditions and social experiences of the learners since elementary and secondary schools. The inadequate participation and inclusion of Chicano students in the elementary and secondary levels of education cause poor preparation of the learners for higher education and future professional careers.

Chicano students attain lower educational outcomes than white students at any level of education (Solorzano and Solorzano 294). Although the educational administrators and policymakers believe that the U.S. education system offers equal opportunities at all levels of education, the real experiences of learners problematize such a generalized belief (Solorzano and Solorzano 294). High-quality academic curriculum in elementary school is a prerequisite to secondary and postsecondary learning outcomes. However, research shows that minority elementary schools lack such high-quality educational programs. Solorzano and Solorzano (295) support the argument of Yosso et al (669) and Bernal and Aleman, Jr. (10) who postulate that minority students experience stress and poor information processing rather than enriched learning environment. Moreover, majority of school curricula and textbooks often exclude the social and cultural experiences of the Chicanos, and express negative stereotypes about minority racial groups. These conditions lead to low academic performance and poor learning outcomes among the Chicano students.

The transition of Chicano students from elementary to postsecondary education also demonstrate a low progression of learners from one level of education to another. Although Chicano students enrolled in colleges and universities have increased in absolute numbers over the last ten years, the increase is negatively correlated with the general surge in Chicano population (Solorzano and Solorzano 296). Furthermore, a large number of Chicano students attend two-year community colleges, and the transitions to four-year universities is significantly low. Such a trend is caused by institutional policies and access to financing.

Some institutionalized political issues and legislations affect undocumented Chicano students who would wish to attend universities. For example, the Assembly Bill 540 (AB 540) requires undocumented learners who graduate from high schools to file an affidavit with the institution to show that they will apply for permanent residency as soon as they are eligible for citizenship (Huber et al 1). However, the law does not give undocumented students from low-income communities the opportunity to access financial aid from state and federal funding institutions. This exclusion contradicts the dominant assumption that the U.S. government provides equal opportunities to education.

Strategies to Address the Issues Experienced by Chicano Students

To address the challenges experienced by Chicanos in higher education, various strategies have been historically implemented to boost the morale and involvement of Chicano learners despite the negative racial environment. Fortunately, Chicano communities are resilient compared to other minority groups. According to Yosso et al (661), most of the Chicano university students do not consider themselves to be helpless victims of racism. On the contrary, they often find motivation in overt and subtle incidences of racism. Latino students also pursue academic and professional achievements to disprove the racial and stereotypical assumptions of low expectations and underrepresentation of Chicanos.

One of the ways that Chicano learners have pursued to improve their learning in hostile racial environments is to attend Chicano studies classes where they build their skills of critical racial navigation towards self-belief and cultural identity. The lessons also help them to understand and appreciate the legacy of resistance to oppression (Acevedo-Gil et al 103). Consequently, the Latino learners are able to build confidence and resist all forms of racial microaggressions. Thus critical race theory should be taught to all Chicano learners to help them understand their culture and social backgrounds better, and believe in their abilities to learn and gain knowledge effectively through university and college education.

Another important approach of improving diversity and inclusion of Chicano students in universities and colleges is by developing mentorship programs that help Chicano students to discover their abilities and pursue their goals without bothering about microaggressions in racially hostile environments. For example, the Adelante program, a mentoring program in the University of Utah, helps several scholars to mentor young learners in various elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities (Bernal and Aleman 61). The University of Utah’s Diversity Scholars Program provide support to first year students to encourage academic excellence and retention for university students of color. Thus, the mentorship program is an important tool that may be replicated in all institutions to support people of color to provide opportunities for learning, leading to improved educational outcomes and increased graduation rates among students of color.


Indeed, students of color experience significant challenges in universities and colleges due to institutionalized microaggressions, exclusion, stereotypical assumptions, and cultural alienation. Although universities and colleges claim to be providing equal education opportunities, reality in individual schools show politicized systems and structures that encourage negative campus racial climate. In such environments, Chicano students fail to concentrate and participate in learning activities, leading to low academic attainment and graduate rates. The Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an essential tool for improving the attitudes and motivation of Chicano students, fostering resilience and confidence, and encouraging students to appreciate legitimate resistance against oppression. Chicano university learners may also participate in mentorship programs to enhance academic support, improved retention, and higher academic performance.

Works Cited

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