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University of Illinois Center Works to Deconstruct the Politics of Race

During this historic presidential election campaign, remarks with racial overtones have made headlines, offending some voters and garnering sympathy from others. The candidates have been required to interpret, explain, apologize for, denounce or distance themselves from these statements and those who made them.

The missteps in the discussions about race at the highest levels of leadership in this country show the enormity and the complexity of the task faced by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society.

As a component of UIUC’s diversity initiative, the university established the center five years ago with the mission of producing “vigorous scholarly and public debate on the multiple racial contexts of democracy” and analysis of the “national dynamics of racial divisions and of democratic possibilities.”

Dr. Jorge Chapa, a sociologist and demographer whose research has focused on Hispanic public policy issues, joined the center as its first permanent director in July 2006, and plans to start focusing on research that will open up discussions on race to improve the overall campus climate among its more than 41,000 students, faculty and staff.  

Some recent controversies have led to increased racial tensions on campus, including the end of the university mascot’s Chief Illiniwek performances, a feature of the college’s football and basketball games since 1926; the recent “tacos and tequila party,” which featured derogatory stereotypes of Hispanics; and anecdotes that the university housing office segregates Black, Asian and Hispanic students.

“We are going to post our research, have the campus see it, respond to it and ask questions,” says Chapa, adding that the aim for the effort is to raise awareness and interest and increase knowledge about issues of campus climate, an issue the university’s top leadership is committed to improving.

In a yearlong project set to start this spring, Dr. Ruby Mendenhall, an assistant professor in African American studies and sociology, will lead a center-sponsored study on micro-aggression on campus.

“Micro-aggressions are subtle insults, verbal, nonverbal or visual, directed toward people of color often automatically or unconsciously,” Mendenhall says.

Psychiatrist Chester Pierce coined the term “offensive mechanisms” in an essay published in 1970, which posits that the sum of these micro-aggressions “assure that the person in the inferior status is ignored, tyrannized and terrorized.”

“Sometimes students of color feel that White students may not necessarily talk to them in their classes, or when a professor assigns group work that sometimes they are not included when the group meets,” Mendenhall says, describing some initial conversations she has had with students.

In addition to small group discussions with students, Mendenhall and CDMS will work with the campus housing office and other campus departments to distribute surveys that they hope will provide data to develop preventative solutions to such events.

“When students say this is happening and we see patterns, it will allow us to have something to build on,” says Mendenhall, adding that she hopes the data will assist the Office of Student Affairs in addressing and handling acts of racial micro-aggression.

In Pierce’s 1970 essay, he wrote that by discussing offensive mechanisms and micro-aggressions, the “benefits to America would include making each individual more aware of how and why he contributes to friction in race relations. Such awareness, often accompanied by discomfort, may lead to better interpersonal interactions and thereby help ameliorate our great domestic problem.”

Dr. Joe Feagin, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University and author of The Agony of Education: Black Students at White Colleges and Universities, first pitched the idea of the center seven years ago to then- provost Richard Herman, who is now the chancellor. Feagin was a visiting professor at the time.

“I’d been trying [the idea] on administrators at several universities since about the mid-1990s,” Feagin says, adding that administrators then didn’t think it was important. In recent years, it has been easier to make the case for such research centers, but there are new challenges to getting these conversations started.

“Most senior administrators at our top universities are worried about funding, grants, endowments and tuition,” Feagin says. “The issue of multiracial changes, multiracial America, multiracial democracy is down on their list of priorities.”

Brought forth by other universities and researchers along the same lines, race and democracy research centers have been established at other universities, including Stanford University, Texas A&M University and the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Part of the job of these centers is to begin telling the truth about American history and our racial and ethnic history,” Feagin says. “As a country, we have not faced our history.”

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