The tragic death of a USC graduate student has once again brought the university’s bearings in its own neighborhood into the spotlight. Unfortunately, when it comes to discussing such topics, the conversation focuses on the danger in the community but does not address the systemic causes of such conditions.
Since the 1960s, the area now known as South Los Angeles has upheld a national reputation for race riots, gang violence and poverty. USC’s campus falls within the region “University Park,” a subarea of Exposition Park.
USC has played an integral role in invigorating the commercial base of the University Park neighborhood. It has implemented countless outreach programs for underserved areas of Los Angeles, including the college preparatory USC Hybrid High School that opened in Downtown Los Angeles in 2012 and the millions of dollars raised through the Good Neighbors Campaign. Throughout the years, students have found several ways to serve the community, including building student organizations for such outreach purposes.
A social divide persists, however, whether it’s in the comments about the neighborhood uttered among students or within administrative policies.
After the tragic deaths of two graduate students near campus in the spring of 2012 and, a few months after, the shooting that occurred at an on-campus Halloween party, the university implemented a massive overhaul of its security policies. Collapsable security gates appeared at the Jefferson and Exposition street entrances. Security personnel were stationed at university entrances from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. to check the identification of anyone entering campus. On top of that, fingerprint scanners were installed at the main entrance to dorms on campus.
Still, some student coalitions and faculty members raised concerns about the kind of message the image of gates and guards posted all along the campus boundary might send to the community. Overall, the perceived contrast between USC and the surrounding South Los Angeles area is an archetype of greater socioeconomic stratification in society. Even in light of charitable acts and organizations, the prevailing discourse and social realities maintain the divide between the haves and the have-nots, keeping each to their respective spaces.
South Los Angeles is often portrayed as a brutish place. A class of fifth graders from the South Shore area of Chicago recognized the same phenomenon in their own neighborhood, with the press regularly coming in to cover outbreaks of violence and dubbing it a “Terror Town.” In response, the fifth graders wrote a counternarrative about what their home means to them in spite of how it’s nationally represented. It was published in the Chicago Tribune in July. Similarly, the reputation of South Los Angeles often focuses on the violence and gang activity rather than the relationships of power and oppression that feed into them. A recent incident in which more than 79 LAPD officers in full riot gear shut down a party of mostly black and Latino students shows that not only are these issues still present, but also why they should be important to the university.
It is crucial to understand the complex social and historical forces that have come to shape a neighborhood while actively affecting it. The university has a responsibility to ensure the safety of its students, but so long as it occupies the space that it currently does, it should also analyze the messages it sends to the community.