Rap Session on Race
As Clinton calls for a second round of campus dialogue on race, some wonder how successful the first was; others praise efforts as a useful starting point
WASHINGTON — President Clinton created the President’s Initiative on Race to “help build One America in the 21st Century — a nation of people who respect their diversity and embrace the values which unite them.”
But nearly two years later, it appears that a key component of Clinton’s plans for greater racial harmony — actively involving the nation’s 3,600 colleges and universities — has fallen far short of the mark.
A mere 16 percent of higher education institutions participated in the first Campus Week of Dialogue on Race in April 1998 with events that ranged from town hall meetings and student leadership activities to community-university partnerships and more.
Since then, little has been said about what impact — if any — those events actually had on the campuses and communities in which they took place. Worse, many higher education officials draw a blank when asked about last year’s events.
Despite such mediocre results, Clinton next month will again call upon campuses to set aside the week of Oct. 4-8 for dialogue on issues of race and diversity.
A random sampling by Black Issues of college and universities revealed that some school representatives had no recollection whatsoever of the Campus Week of Dialogue. Yet those administrators who did remember it unanimously agreed that it was — or could have been — valuable, inspirational, worthwhile, and in some cases, even healing. What’s more, the conversations didn’t just attract a smattering of socially conscious students. Rather, at most schools, there was significant participation from students, staff, and faculty, as well as from diverse members of related communities.
Dr. Barbara Frankle, associate dean for academic affairs at LeMoyne-Owen College says that approximately 60 percent of the student body and more than 200 area residents participated in marches, panel discussions, town hall meetings, workshops, or other activities at her campus in Memphis. One event brought together CEO’s from the city’s business community to a roundtable discussion focusing on education, business, and race relations.
“Most people who participated felt inspired,” Frankle says. “We continue to do these types of things because of the excitement it inspired.”
More Than Conversation
Unlike the small, private, mostly Black-attended atmosphere at LeMoyne-Owen, Colorado State University boasts 23,000 students, of which only 10.9 percent are people of color. The campus is situated in the predominantly White community of Fort Collins, Colo. Dr. Cheryl Presley, associate vice president for student affairs, says it’s a challenging environment for Black students because there isn’t an identifiable African American community off campus.
Asked if the week of dialogue had anything to do with the university’s development of a comprehensive five-year strategic plan for promoting diversity, Presley says, “We’re way ahead of that stage. Diversity is an ongoing issue that you can’t just address in one week of dialogue.”
Nevertheless, Presley believes the week of dialogue is important for schools that have no existing ethnicity programs in place. Colorado State started dialoguing about multicultural issues nine years ago, and Presley believes those discussions have contributed to the diversity plan. She adds that the Campus Week of Dialogue on Race could serve a similar purpose for other institutions.
Victor Collins is the director of the office of multicultural student affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. The student population there is similar in size to that of Colorado State — except people of color comprise more than one-third all students. African Americans make up 19 percent.
“We would be like an ostrich with his head buried in the ground if we didn’t always have the opportunity for these kinds of discussions to occur,” Collins says. “But the Campus Week of Dialogue is valuable … since it serves as a prod for those institutions that don’t have anything in process.”
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore also already had several programs in place when the president’s call came last year. But according to assistant director of multicultural affairs, Rose Varner-Gaskins, “Once we heard there was going to be a formal week of dialogue, it was a way of jumping into what we were doing and getting the momentum going.”
The Black Student Union spearheaded a “Vote for Affirmative Action” day where they occupied nearby streets holding signs that said: “Honk if you believe in Affirmative Action.” They invited prestigious speakers from universities, political camps, large businesses, the NAACP, and local ethnic organizations to discuss what remains of affirmative action laws. Those dialogues branched out into related issues about race, sexual orientation, and women’s issues.
Varner-Gaskins was particularly proud of the students for the walk-outs they organized in which professors, staff, even deans ended up following students outside.
“We look at it this way,” Varner-Gaskins says. “Whenever the president says, ‘Let’s do something,’ people get excited, they find meaning in it for the university, and more people get involved.”
An Ongoing Process
The Yale Divinity School is one of the schools that did not have race or diversity programs in place prior to the President’s call last year. So, when Demetrius “Pigeon” Semien, a third-year divinity graduate student was approached about putting something together for the Week of Dialogue, he thought it was a good opportunity to start a program that might eventually be stretched into something broader.
Indeed, the activities of the divinity school held during that week turned out to be the springboard for a yearlong program that drew approximately 1,000 people to campus and community events.
“The programs we created helped heal some of the problems that exist between Yale and New Haven, and because of that, it had a major impact,” Semien says.
Semien isn’t convinced, however, that the motives for creating the Week of Dialogue are entirely good: “In a year where the president and congress enacted a bill to cut welfare, this gesture, as positive as it was, seemed like a cover. It disturbed me that there weren’t more public policies made to support the Initiative on Race or to improve economic conditions for minorities and the poor.”
And according to Dr. Walter Allen, a professor of sociology at UCLA who says Semien is touching upon a core issue: “It’s one thing to talk, it’s quite another to act in ways that change the face of institutions and how they operate.”
Allen finds public dialogues worthwhile as long as they are honest, candid unidirectional, and solution-oriented. But he warns against setting up forums that reflect existing power-hierarchies, such as an all-White faculty debating with an all-minority student panel. Instead, he urges that conversations about diversity include perspectives from the broad spectrum of people who are being represented. And, he emphasizes that the focus should not be about individuals with racist views, but about deeply entrenched systems and institutions that keep the machinery of racism running.
“The issues we confront when we talk about race aren’t touchy-feely. If [well-meaning] people operate a system that is racist, the result is the same. You must address the existing structured racial hierarchy.”
And as people like Semien discovered, indeed one week can last a whole year. But for those institutions that still have no ethnicity programs in place, it’s particularly unsettling that virtually none of the people Black Issues spoke to knew when the next official Campus Week of Dialogue would be scheduled.
For more information about the Campus Week of Dialogue on Race contact Don Connor at (202) 708-5588, or visit the following Web site: <www.ed.gov/campusdialogue>.
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