If anyone was ever under the illusion that the election of Barack Obama had somehow signaled that the nation had become post-racial, the recent spate of racist incidents should convince us otherwise.
Last week, a noose was left on the grounds of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Earlier last month, someone walked around the American University campus and hung three bananas from strings fashioned in the shape of nooses, to three campus trees.
And just days before his college graduation, Richard Collins III, a Bowie State University student was stabbed to death by a 22-year-old White man who had ties to the Alt-Reich Nation.
If that wasn’t enough, basketball star LeBron James made news when it was reported that his home was vandalized with a racial slur. And comedian Bill Maher — considered a darling to liberals and progressives — sparked national outrage when he referred to himself as a “house nigger” during an exchange with a Nebraska lawmaker on his HBO television show.
“He doesn’t get a pass because we’re friends,” said civil rights activist, Reverend Al Sharpton. “What Bill Maher did was normalize a word that is anything but normal.”
These incidents serve as a daily reminder that we have much more work to do in addressing racism head-on. At a time when unarmed Black men continue to be gunned down in our cities by police officers, there is reason to be alarmed and vigilant.
And yet, there is also reason to be hopeful, particularly when one sees college students, staff, administrators and faculty members come together to seek solutions to the age-old race problems.
That happened last week when more than 3,000 gathered in Fort Worth, Texas for the annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education.
For 30 years, NCORE — as it’s called — has been at the vanguard of facilitating tough but needed conversations about race and inclusion.
Started by a group of staff and administrators in the Southwest Center for Human Relations Students at the University of Oklahoma, the annual gathering has become the destination place for those in higher education who want to foster a dialogue about racism.
“There is such discomfort in this country talking about and addressing race and ethnicity and the myriad of intersections that things go underground,” said Dr. Belinda P. Biscoe, the interim vice president for university outreach, public and community services at the University Oklahoma and the administrator for NCORE. “We are not comfortable talking about it. There is so much anger, so many marginalized groups out there and that builds a lot of resentment and things fester and then they explode.”
At this year’s NCORE, organizers planned a diverse group of workshops with topics ranging from “The Life of a Black Student on a Predominantly White Campus,” to “Recruiting and Retaining Diverse Faculty.”
Racial issues are discussed and examined through the lens of American higher education, which continues to struggle with — like so many other entities in this country — how best to become an inclusive space for students, faculty and staff.
“NCORE allows us to have these difficult conversations as a starting point and it lets folks who come to NCORE know that they’re not alone,” said Biscoe. “NCORE is a safe space to let it all hang out.”
But it wasn’t all serious talk.
Comedians Hari Kondabolu of Brooklyn and Jenny Yang of Los Angeles, used humor to address social problems that continue to haunt disenfranchised groups.
“This work in social justice requires so much heavy lifting from us,” said Biscoe, who said the comedians’ “appropriate humor gave some levity to this important but exhausting work.”
Indeed, diversity work is hard work, particularly on America’s college campuses.
And yet, when one considers the passion that Kamau Chege — a rising senior at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington — has for doing this work, it’s hard not be inspired.
He came to NCORE last week to get recharged and to hear from administrators and staff from other institutions who are working on equity and inclusion issues on campus.
He says that there is much work to be done at Whitworth and wants to be a part of the change. For now, he’s agreed to serve as the cultural events coordinator at the university and wants to use this position to bring students, faculty, staff and administrators together to talk about differences.
“There are lots of levers and avenues for change,” said Chege, who was born in Nairobi, Kenya and immigrated to the United States when he was 6 years old. “There is a terrain of struggle for students who want to make campuses more conscious. But I believe that we can make progress and NCORE is helping us to do this work.”
Jamal Eric Watson is the executive editor of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. You can reach him at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter @jamalericwatson