November 11, 2005

Campus-wide talk tackles race issues

Over 300 people packed into Hutch Commons on Tuesday evening for a University-wide meeting about the racial climate on campus. The heated discussion was the most recent of the University’s actions in response to the October 14 “straight-thuggin’” party.

Teresa Owens, dean of students in the Divinity School, moderated the two-hour meeting. Vice President and Dean of Students Steve Klass, Deputy Provost for Research and Minority Issues Ken Warren, Provost Richard Saller, and Deputy Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs (OMSA) Ana Vázquez were on the panel of speakers.

Klass addressed the media attention that the incident received in the Chicago Tribune, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and news, noting two inaccuracies in the coverage: that the University had approved the party’s theme and that it had provided the funding.

Speaking to criticisms that the University’s response was not “immediate or tough enough,” Klass outlined the University’s actions upon hearing of the party.

He said that at 4:30 p.m. on October 17, he received an e-mail about the party, and immediately spoke with Katie Callow-Wright, associate dean of Students in the University and director of Undergraduate Student Housing.

Early in the morning of October 18, Klass met with his senior staff to discuss the incident. On October 19, he spoke to Waldo Johnson, the newly appointed director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.

Working with Saller and President Don Randel, the administration sent an e-mail to the entire University community about the party and the University’s response. Klass noted that this letter was the first of its kind to be sent in his decade-long tenure at the U of C, which affirmed how seriously the administration reacted to the situation.

Klass said that he “couldn’t disagree more” with those who thought the University overreacted to the incident. He said the situation was about freedom of speech and that “most importantly for a place like this University, we hold intellectual diversity and freedom of speech as an absolute sacred principle.”

Ken Warren then spoke about the efforts that have been made in the past three years to increase racial sensitivity on campus, particularly through the Provost’s Initiative of Minority Issues (PIMI).

He mentioned the “frequency with which a kind of thoughtlessness all too often characterizes interactions” between majority and minority groups, emphasizing that most of these incidents are not acts of hostility or indifference.

Warren said that PIMI sought to decrease the occurrence of such incidents by making sure the University community keeps in mind issues concerning “minority students in the classroom and on campus.”

Saller said that the University is making strong efforts to recruit students, faculty, and staff of color. He also said that “the issues on our campus are inseparable from the issues between the community and the University,” and noted that the University is gradually making progress in collaborating with Hyde Park.

OMSA director Ana Vázquez began by saying that she and her staff personally found the events that occurred offensive. “But, I must be honest and say that I was not surprised,” she said.

She added that the University of Chicago’s predominantly white campus and previous incidents of racial insensitivity were signs that an event such as the “straight thuggin’” party was likely to occur.

Citing a PIMI survey conducted earlier this year, Vázquez provided preliminary statistics that indicate a general discomfort among students of color with the level of cultural sensitivity on campus.

She discussed several areas for improvement, including the need for a diversity center on campus, the architectural plans for which are already in the making.

After administrators spoke, an audience member questioned why the party was offensive. Fourth-year in the College Kenneth Jones responded, “I’m tired of having to explain my position to the majority. It doesn’t just take black people to be offended. Ask your fellow white student as a student why they were offended.”

Owens added, “We think racism has retreated because we no longer have legal segregation.”

Second-year in the College Kristiana Colón, who arrived to the “straight thuggin’” party soon after it ended, said a larger issue was at hand. “Something that is being missed by the majority of students is the concept of white privilege,” she said. “Race is something that white people can choose to deal with or not.”

Third-year Tom Discepola, a member of the Spartacus Youth Club, made a reference to black U of C graduate student Clemmie Carthans, who was beaten by two UCPD officers after they saw him hugging his white female friend outside of the Reg in January 2004. Discepola said that oppression of blacks “works on the basis of a race color-caste,” and that since the days of slavery, “blacks have been the bedrock upon which American capitalism rests.”

Fourth-year in the College Justin Lee asked the panel about the College’s efforts to recruit black students.

Michael Behnke, vice president of University relations and dean of College enrollment, responded, “The 4.8 percent enrollment of black students in this year’s incoming class is unacceptably low, but it does not reflect the attitude of those working to recruit students of color. It is not because of lack of trying.”

First-year Ruth Anne Whitfield took action herself, saying, “We’ve been here for two hours and I have not even heard one suggestion about what to do. I want to know how we can get a general Core requirement about race and about white privilege.” She continued, “I want no longer for white people to have an excuse.”

First-year Josh Liss, who attended the “straight thuggin’” party, noted that he grew up in a diverse, interracial neighborhood in Philadelphia. He said that he was thankful for the friendships that he made with people of all races. He went on to apologize for his involvement in the party and said that he thinks that the University needs to be a more diverse environment.

The meeting concluded with comments from Colón, as well as representatives from the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC).

Colón introduced a proposal that she and other minority students involved in the incident were presenting to the administration. The proposal outlined steps that the University needs to take in order to enact change in the campus climate. The SOCC presented a proposal as well, with more qualitative goals.

Klass said he was “proud of our students” and that “for an open forum focused on such a complicated and emotional issue as race, I felt that the vast majority of the commentary was thoughtful, personal, and civil.”

Saller described the discussion as “painful,” but “important to have.” He added, “I hope it gave us a chance to make clear face-to-face what the University has been doing on the subject of diversity.”

One of the co-hosts of the “straight thuggin’” party who wished to remain anonymous said about the meeting: “Over the past month, I have learned more each day about why our actions were offensive. Everyday my understanding of the event and the reactions to it is furthered,” she said. “The meeting was another example—I now know more about the underlying racial tensions on campus and between the University and the community.”