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Remembering Our Roots

Remembering Our Roots

When I first went to interview our cover subject Dr. Jim Gates at the University of Maryland, I did not quite know what to expect. Here was a leading theoretician in the field of elementary particle physics, not to mention a world expert in the groundbreaking areas of superstring theory, supersymmetry and supergravity. Sound intimidating? It was. However, I encountered not just a physicist, but an activist, truly committed to the general education of all children — and I was quite impressed.
For those who follow higher education on a daily basis, the hot topic is the underrepresentation of minorities in the areas of science, mathematics and technology. In the past few editions alone, Black Issues has reported on conferences held, research grants given, and reports released all in efforts to increase minority participation in these areas. Yet, when Gates expressed his disappointment with a recent conference because the participants were not “thinking outside the box,” I began to wonder: Could I recall the type of discussions Gates was advocating? Those that emphasized getting families, churches and the community involved? I could not.
Perhaps these different discussions will lead to the different set of federal policies that California-based physicist Dr. Keith Jackson calls for in our cover story “Focus on Physics” (see page 24.) According to Jackson, a different set of policies would result in greater African American participation in physics. Without such changes, Jackson says, he cannot be optimistic. Honestly, neither can I.
All told, I cannot even be optimistic that more Black students will actually have the chance to ponder an undergraduate major in physics in light of the most recent court ruling on diversity efforts at our nation’s colleges. As of late last month, we can now add the University of Georgia to the list of institutions that have had their diversity goals uprooted by a Federal Appellate Court.
The recent 11th Circuit Court decision in Georgia speaks volumes about the power of the terms we have attached to the quest for equality in higher education. “Racial diversity alone is not necessarily the hallmark of a diverse student body,” the court said, “and race is not necessarily the only, or the best, criterion for determining the contribution that an applicant might make” to a university. That is, a White applicant from rural Appalachia might contribute more than a non-White student from suburban Atlanta.
Yet, even with the University of Georgia’s efforts to recruit more minority students, Black freshman enrollment this fall is down 20 percent, and in the last 10 years the percentage of Black students has been below 7 percent. Furthermore, the school consistently falls behind its sister institutions Georgia Tech and Georgia State in terms of minority graduation rates.
Perhaps, then, the judges should not be concerned with the constitutionality of the university’s admissions policy, but with the absurdity of the fact that in a state that is almost a third Black, the flagship institution, with a Black enrollment of less than 6 percent, does not even closely represent the racial makeup of the state.
I often wonder, however, whether our moves to the suburbs have come with some sort of disconnection from our heritage, our history. Do we still call on or believe in the power of collectivity — a trait that historically has been important to the African American community. As federal court rulings and federal policies increasingly undermine our efforts to diversify higher education are we, as Gates questions, getting the community, the church, the family involved in our plight.
Perhaps we can use Gates as an example. Dr. Clarence G. Williams of MIT describes Gates’ narrative as a “true story of a young Black man who cames from the South and never forgets where he came from.”
I dare to ask, are we forgetting where we came from? 

Robin V. Smiles, Associate Editor

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