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Decades after Davis, racism still a problem

Published: November 16, 2007
Section: Opinions

While abroad I have devoted the time that I usually spent in the US watching TV towards reading in the semi-comfortable setting of my home here in Dakar. While escapism is partly behind this renewed interest of mine, the sparse library at my school has provided a few gems, and the paperback version of Angela Davis autobiography provided me with the weekend entertainment that badly dubbed Brazilian soap operas could sadly never completely supplant.

Reading the book itself did not produce anywhere near the life changing results that reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X (which I ironically read last time I was in Africa) provided me, but interestingly enough, it did give me a historical perspective of being a student at Brandeis, who also happened to be Black. Ms. Davis attended our school as an undergraduate and the recollection of her time spent on our campus unfortunately reaffirmed several concerns I already had concerning our current status as an academic institution, especially one that is supposedly a place of enlightened individuals and a home to the historically oppressed.

Bashing Brandeis has become a daily activity for many of students (most of whom focus their complaints on the food or social life), and the fact that people in general are unhappy with their college experience is not a completely surprising realization. However, there exists a bigger problem in our entire scholastic culture when people are uncomfortable in their own skin, religion, or gender, and that is what made reading Angela Daviss short passages of Brandeis so compelling, and sad.

Now in mentioning that there is a racially based problem within the school, I am not signaling out the recent events involving Professor Donald Hindley as evidence of this wider problem, in fact with respect to the Hindley situation, one could actually view it as a continuation of the problem of administrative ignorance to the racial issues that existed in Daviss time and continues to this day at Brandeis.

Instead of simply punishing people for using racist terminology (whatever the context), what exactly are our administrators doing to correct the actual problems concerning race? Simply put, where are the Black and Latino students, and why have we as a community still not figured out how to make our campus more welcoming and open to their presence?

Davis described her time in our school as a generally unhappy period of her life where she was able to bond solely with the few (and from her accounts few might mean as little as 5-6) black students. This sad existence was actually an improvement for young Angela Davis, as her original few semesters at Brandeis consisted of long periods of loneliness and despair over her situation as a race-based outsider. She worked in the Library and at Chums for the sheer purpose of going on a term abroad to leave a place that she saw as all white and even less egalitarian in terms of class. What is scary about her story is that with a few minor changes (such as replacing the Hamilton and Ridgewood quads with their new buildings)

Davis tale could describe the early 1960s or right now. I have personally heard too many accounts like this, that being a Black or Latino student here means isolation and the continued feelings of general social subjugation, as skin color alone dictated a degraded status and prevented any acceptance from the larger community that proceeded past generally ambivalence, or even worse: patronizing curiosity. I have been told many times by black students of the uncomfortable times they have been told by their white counter parts that they were the first Black person they have ever known, a statement that is often followed by even more embarrassing questions regarding racial misconceptions too disgusting to repeat here.

What does this mean for toady? In reality, the numbers alone show that our generally disinterested and aloof President is even more oblivious to the lack of minority representation on campus, not to mention the fact that his entire administration has continually ignored any pressing issue involving the voices of discontent amongst any group on campus that is not complaining about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. If hypothetically, someone from his office (as it would take a small miracle to actually pique his interests beyond a wayward e-mail to find out if I am on financial aid or not) or admissions were to actually read and respond to this article, they would undoubtedly cite the TYP program or POSSE as examples of a continued commitment towards diversity at Brandeis. However these same programs testify to the exact problem that they themselves have yet to properly address. The members of POSSE are among the first to voice the continued lack of both a diversity in terms of numbers of minorities here and even more importantly, a consciousness and understanding to the cultures and needs of our few Black or Brown students. The Transitional Year Program also suffers a social stigma here, for while the students who take part in this program are just as qualified and work just as hard as any other student, they continually are looked down on among the white conservative elites here as undeserving affirmative action students (forgetting of course that being a legacy gives one a pretty decent chance of getting in here, deserving or not). It is not unheard of at our school for a party to be described as too TYP if a larger percentage of Black students the usual happen to be attending that party.

So what can be done? Obviously there are people on campus who would have a conniption if, for example, next years freshman class were composed with a much higher number of people who are Black or Latino then before. A general freak out would occur as the vast majority of people who currently attend our school come from neighborhoods where there are only few families of color, and calls of reverse discrimination would prevail throughout our campus without impunity. To be honest a blind boost in the numbers of admitted minority students would also fail to solve the problem, as these new students would undoubtedly face the same sort of social discrimination on campus, creating in effect, only a larger table where they would collectively sit during lunch. Rather I think that we as a community should look at the works of Angela Davis, and even go as far to interview other minority graduates in a real concerted effort to change the dynamic here on campus. If such an investigation were to be taken, it would show that minority students may not face the kind of visceral, violent hatred and racism of the Bull Conner-era south, but rather the painful stigma of never being part of the dominant social groups, of being thought of as an undeserving recipient of affirmative action (I am by the way, using that term pejoratively ironically) , of having to answer questions regarding every tired racist stereotype from curious white students, or the penultimate insult of simply being ignored.

Angela Davis spoke of a campus that was patriarchal, monochromatic, and even puritanical at times (she mentioned being put on trial for spending a night in the boys dorms, under the pretense that it could potentially sully the name of Brandeis University). But the University she described still managed to have Malcolm X speak on campus, hire radical professors, and was capable of fostering the kind of leftist politics that resulted in some of the most successful rights-based movements in the history of the country. Today I think that our campus has strangely changed into a place that punishes those who overtly provide evidence of a world where racism unfortunately still exists, yet fails to actually rid our environment of the subconscious hatred and tangible habitats where such hatred is allowed to grow and prosper (albeit quietly). Perhaps we as a community can solve both problems ourselves (as it is obvious that Reinharz simply does not care), as acknowledging our own revolutionary past and important place in the history of the continued civil rights movement, we can in effect create a home and identity to which todays minority students can grow and prosper. Maybe if we went as far as actually acknowledging the contributions of alumni like Angela Davis (whose stories and contributions to this world go far beyond that of a rather boring pseudo-economist like Thomas Friedman) we would ameliorate a problem that could potentially end the original dreams of the challenging, yet egalitarian university envisioned by our founders. It may sound simplistic, but the old clich concerning those who fail to examine history are in fact doomed to repeat it is alarmingly applicable to this situation, and if you do not believe me, ask Angela Davis about her time in Brandeis, or even better, ask a Black or Latino student sitting alone in class the same question, and I am sure you will be surprised by their answer.