In May, just before the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, the University of Colorado Boulder’s administration announced the creation of a new Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS) on its campus. The goal of the CAAAS (pronounced “cause”) is to provide support for those teaching and researching the history and culture of people of African descent. It will also be a physical space for social connection, something many Black CU students said was missing as part of their higher education experience. But the move to create an intellectual and communal space has not come without criticism. 

The administration has yet to identify exactly where the center will exist on campus, which has made students worried school leaders are dragging their feet. And while the move is celebrated by scholars, many lament the fact that other top-tier universities created similar spaces 50 years ago, born out of social movements of the 1960s. “Things happen in due time, and they happen for the best,” says J.B. Banks, associate vice chancellor and dean of students at CU Boulder. “I think the institution embraces the opportunity, and we are pushing forward with responding to the students and their needs.” 

The CAAAS will take ambitious strides from its onset. In its first year, the center seeks to establish an annual distinguished lecture series; an annual concert series; an annual performing arts series; an annual “Africana Cinema Series”; an annual series on African, African American and African diasporan art; a collaborative effort to organize and host CU’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Black History Month celebrations; and an annual academic conference. 

Guaranteed funding over the next five years, totaling $850,000, will also bring financial support to CAAAS faculty, graduate, and undergraduate research. The center will even aim to actively recruit and retain more African American faculty and students.

“When I came to the University of Colorado Boulder in 2005, I was shocked that its flagship public university didn’t have a CAAAS,” says professor and CAAAS founding director Reiland Rabaka, who’s known for his courses that brought curriculum on the Black Lives Matter movement to campus. “Most of its peers have had centers like this since the late 1960s. It was even more shocking because there was a lot of lip service to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Rabaka refers to the university’s so-called recent racial awakening. Last year, Floyd’s murder reshifted racism in our collective consciousness, both locally and nationally. Since then, institutions have worked, sometimes scrambled, to address what many Black students have seen as a longtime problem: the lack of representation on campuses. Rabaka and several students began to push CU Boulder’s administration to catch up to other “Public Ivies” and put its money where its mouth was.

To state the obvious, CU Boulder’s student body is overwhelmingly white. According to the university’s Office of Data Analytics, total enrollment in fall 2020 was 34,975 students. Of that, about 972 students were Black or African American. (That’s less than 3 percent.) “So many [white students] had not learned very much about African Americans in K to 12,” says Rabaka. “The center, as an idea, really grew out of my Black Lives Matter classes, and a lot of my African American studies classes.” 

Black students active in the student union, Ethnic Studies majors, and former enrollees in Rabaka’s classes decided to take action. In 2020, they launched a national petition in support of the center. By the end of spring, they’d received about 1,200 signatures. Rabaka saw this as a multiracial and multi-ethnic endeavor, and a reflection on the part of white people expressing interest in having a place to learn more. “In America, most people know very little about African Americans. They know our popular culture, athletics, and some know that we were enslaved,” he says. “But real, concrete knowledge about us is really lacking, and this is an opportunity we have to not only educate the campus, but educate the community about African American history, culture, and struggle.”

In April of 2021, Rabaka was asked to write an op-ed for the Daily Camera about the need for the center. Soon after, he garnered the attention of the Boulder chapter of the NAACP, and the organization has since pledged to raise one million dollars over the next five years for the CAAAS. As of early June, they had $200,000 pledged.

The CAAAS arrives as conservative-leaning Americans are changing their view on the value of education: According to a 2017 Pew Research study, Republicans have grown increasingly negative about the impact of higher learning in the U.S. The study of race and racism within academe has even become the newest culture war. 

Case in point, at least 22 states have proposed measures that would prevent teaching critical race theory (or “CRT”) in K to 12 education. Senator Ted Cruz called it “bigoted … a lie, and every bit as racist as a Klansman in white sheets.” Most school boards have stated that they’re not teaching CRT at all. But activists and some parents are conflating the term to refer to anything to do with the topic of race or equity, and even Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, like the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Efforts to recall and unseat school board members have become a priority for state and local political operatives.  

The backlash is happening locally, too. On June 23, parents in the Cherry Creek School District announced it would raise the issue at an upcoming school board meeting. According to CBS Denver, officials from the majority white district say the curriculum does not include CRT. The outlet also confirmed with the Colorado Education Association that CRT is not taught in any public grade school. But a presentation shared with Cherry Creek parents made mention of “learning perspectives” based on HB 1192, a 2019 bill passed by the Colorado legislature, allowing for the teaching of “social contributions” from a broad range of minority groups. One white parent told CBS Denver ahead of the meeting that they fear such teachings might “alienate” her child, while an Asian American mother pointed out what she saw as a lack of representation of Asian communities in state history books. Meanwhile, in Denver Public Schools, with more than 70 percent minority population, students are pushing to bring more Black history into the curriculum. 

When pressed about these issues, Rabaka redirects the focus away from controversy. Instead, he shares his hope for what the CAAAS will be for CU: a radically humanist endeavor that’s intersectional, and has a wide reach within the campus community.

“Since 1876, Black folk have not felt like they had a permanent space [on campus],” says Rabaka. “Now, future alumni will be able to bring their kids and grandkids to Boulder, and say that. I’m trying to create a legacy.” Rabaka hopes that solid financial footing will ensure the center’s permanence as a place to build Black community on campus. “It isn’t about Black people,” he says. “It’s about all people.”