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The Power & Pain of Multicultural Politics on Campus

When votes came in a few weeks ago for new student senators at
California State University Northridge (CSUN), most of the winners were
students of color. While that shouldn’t seem unusual for a multi-ethnic
campus where minorities constitute 62 percent of the 27,000 students,
it was a noteworthy departure from past elections.

True, previous student body presidents at CSUN have included people
of color. But historically, these leaders have been surrounded by
cabinet members and senators who have been White. The 1998 governing
body is the first at CSUN to dramatically deviate from that model.

The CSUN experience is exemplary of what students across the
country are learning about the power and pain of using multicultural
political coalitions as the nation’s urban and suburban campuses become
more diverse.

CSUN sits in the heart of Lost Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. Its
president, Dr. Blenda J. Wilson, is one of four African Americans to
head a Cal State institution. Some say recent campus elections for the
Associate Students at CSUN mirror the region’s demographic shift in
real-world politics, particularly with the growing number of Latino
voters and activists in Los Angeles. Recent estimates reveal that
CSUN’s student body is 38 percent White, 22 percent Latino, 14 percent
Asian American and Pacific Islander, and 8 percent African American.

“Racial politics definitely has its place in certain settings,”
says student body president Joaquin Macias, who describes himself as
both Black and Chicano. “If you are underrepresented in the government
that is dictating social policies [and elected officials] are ignoring
the cultural implications in the community, that is a problem.”

Macias is used to talking about race and politics. Under his
leadership, the school is experiencing its first academic year governed
by an all-minority Associated Students (A.S.) cabinet. But the election
of his administration did not come easily.

Last spring, incumbents and challengers, the latter of whom were
led by Macias, became embroiled in five weeks of name-calling and
accusations of voter fraud. The verbal assaults escalated racial
tensions on campus, pitting students, faculty, and administrations
against each other. A student council advisor later commercial it was
the most rancorous and draining conflict in his thirteen years on

Macias, a twenty-four-old psychology major, campaigned with vice
president Oscar Garay, a Latino. The rest of the slate, which ran under
the moniker. “We the People,” included Blacks, Asian Americans, and

Backed by last year’s incumbents, another group ran on a slate
identified as “Students First,” and the included White, Filipino,
Lebanese, Latino, and Black candidates.

More than 2,400 students voted in the spring elections,
considerably more than in past elections. We the People won by a margin
of roughly 200 votes.

Since both sides included people of color, observers later said the
controversy was not necessarily about race, but rather a complex
combination of conservative versus liberals and Greeks (fraternity and
sorority members) versus non-Greeks. John Hatemi, a
twenty-seven-year-old senior of Middle-Eastern descent who was A.S.
vice president last year and who ran as Students First’s president
candidate this year, blames Macias for playing what he describes as
“racial politics” and perpetuating an image of racism on campus.

“I don’t think it actually helped anybody,” he says. “A lot of
Joaquin’s supporters later apologized [to me] and said that they went
manipulated. That’s the problem with using race and politics — it
doesn’t promote communications. It puts a barrier up and all of [a]
sudden it becomes very emotional.”

Macias, however, says it is Hatemi and his constituency who are dwelling on the subject of race.

“If you notice, when race comes up. I don’t initiate that,” he
says. “I am trying to be inclusive. John and his last administration,
who are generally on the defense, they were the ones asserting [race]
and their fear of being taken over by minority students.”

Hatemi hopes this year’s leaders will focus less on race relations
and multiculturalism. Instead, he hopes they will concentrate on
broader service issues that affect every student such as parking,
security, book prices, and getting a new student recreational center.

Macias retorts he’s already working on those matters. But he says
it is his administration’s sensitivity to issues of diversity that has
led him to launch a new program that offers funding incentives for
dances and other programs sponsored by student clubs that normally do
not work together. The program was created to “reward people for
positive behavior,” and to help students,” get away from the rhetoric
and fear.

“What we’re trying to do is to have students interact with people
they normally wouldn’t,” he explains. “It’s a hallmark program for this

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