Facing Up to Racism on Campus

Nov. 1, 2004 – "Only 9% of African-Americans had never been subject to or witnessed a variety of negative experiences related to their race."

That startling, chilling, eye-popping statistic is not describing blacks across the country, nor is it talking about blacks at the end of their lives; rather, only 9% of black students at the University of Virginia have never been subject to or witnessed a variety of negative experiences related to their race while attending college.

In fact, 40% of black students at the University have had a racial epithet directed at them personally.

Woven into the recently released full report of the President's Commission on Diversity and Equity (CODE), these facts throw neon lighting onto an incredibly important point: We are in the midst of a silent epidemic of racism.

There is an unspoken difference of perception between black students and (white) students when it comes to race relations.

Generally, whites see episodes such as the fraternity blackface, alleged assault on Daisy Lundy and vandalism of Amey Adkins' car as isolated events perpetrated by a few misguided individuals.

A majority of blacks, on the other hand, perceive these as flash points illustrating a much deeper pattern of racism.

This divide is quantifiable. The CODE report found that 71% of white students were "satisfied" with race relations at the University, as opposed to 42% of blacks.

So long as seven in 10 whites believe there are no significant, persistent racial issues, it will be extraordinarily difficult to "change the climate," as is the aim of the Black Student Alliance's current Zero Tolerance for Ignorance campaign.

Perhaps the first step in fixing the racial atmosphere is to present a clear case of two points to (whites). First, that racism is rampant and not simply a string of isolated incidents. Second, that actively working toward change is both morally and pragmatically the right thing to do.

White students have to understand there is a pattern of racial problems at the University, and spreading that view will require a new type of discourse.

Instead of pointing to each new headline-grabbing event and angrily saying, "See?" a much subtler approach must be taken. The stories of unremarkable but equally horrific racism need to be told. Stories about being treated differently by a professor because of your skin color, stories about being avoided on the bus, stories about having epithets thrown at you from a car window — these are the conversations that are not happening.

If the CODE report's number is to be believed, nine out of every 10 black students has a story to tell. Imagine if every one of those students was telling his or her story at the same time — no one would ever again utter the words "isolated incident."

Once we accept the idea that racial episodes happen every single day, then begins the much more difficult task of convincing non-blacks to actively participate in changing the status quo.

Most persuasive civic arguments have at their core an appeal to self-interest; here, self-interest exists only on the periphery. It is beneficial for (whites) to have harmonious race relations at the University with regard to the value of the diploma and reputation of the school, but those are both passive and long-term interests. The heart of the argument for why non-blacks must engage in fixing the racial climate is inescapably moralistic.

The University is our habitat, and those who live within it are our brethren. When a disease strikes at some members of the community, it is the responsibility of every member to respond. Without a broad coalition of students and staff coming together in solidarity, we will never drive the plague of racism from our home.

This is not a battle that can be fought alone; just as the Civil Rights Movement needed white Northerners to band with the black activists to achieve equality, so too does the black community here need non-blacks to acknowledge the depth of the problem and come together for change. The integrity and dignity of the entire University depends on it.

Prior to the CODE report, it was easy to debunk this plea by claiming that the so-called plague was nothing more than a few sickly friends. Now, with the wool pulled back, it is undeniable that there is more a pandemic than a cold.

No one is asking the average student (white, black or otherwise) to jump out of his or her seat and become an activist. Getting involved means being conscientious of race relations and speaking up when something seems amiss. It means talking to friends and family and making sure this is not a discussion absent from the minds of non-blacks. It is the little things — the interactions and body language we're not even aware of — that make all the difference.

If most (whites) continue to see race at the University as a relatively benign issue, then a decade from now the problems will still persist.

We are perched at a unique moment in time in which we can take up the mantle and make it common knowledge that racism is a grave, pervasive crisis that must be obliterated by the entire community.

Then, as one body, we can begin to change the climate, and change that 9% to 99.

"This article originally appeared on Tolerance.org, the news and activism Website of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama."

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