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Meeting the potential of diversity

(12/04/00 10:00am)

One of the most deceptive features of racism is that although it is highly prevalent in many circles, it takes on far more subtle forms than hate crimes and name calling. More often, racial discrimination manifests itself in different expectations and behaviors toward people of color. I often ask: Why are minority students dismissed as being self-segregationist when they get together, whereas Greeks, athletes and other students do the same thing without meeting the same criticism? Why are people so adamant about dismantling DuBois College House but not the Greek system? As a former varsity athlete, I feel that I can attest to the relative exclusivity and homogeneity of certain sports teams on this campus. And as the former Chair of the United Minorities Council, I have been witness to the criticism. Recently, two constituent groups of the UMC, Check One -- a group that addresses the concerns of multiracial, multiethnic students -- and Penn Philippine Association, sponsored a discussion on social segregation in higher education as a part of Unity Week, a week dedicated to promoting cultural interaction on campus. Although the student panel was not very representative of our student body -- it was predominantly black -- diversity of opinion was clearly not compromised. The convictions raised ranged from those preferring randomized housing to those in favor of limited interaction between races. One of the issues addressed was the need for community building, particularly within communities of color. Walter Palmer, the moderator, skillfully maintained a civil and productive discussion in what was at times a contentious atmosphere. One of the points he drove home was that the term "integration" in this country implies minorities moving into and often isolating themselves within predominantly white institutions and communities. Never is it the reverse. Audience members were asked to challenge their own beliefs and perceptions about race and racism, especially when issues were raised concerning housing segregation and the advancements that have been made since the days of the civil rights movement. I drew several points from the forum. First, it is necessary to support the need for students to come together on whatever level they feel comfortable. Cultural groups and Greek organizations are integral aspects of student life, particularly for the social opportunities and support that they provide. We should not undermine this role by describing them as self-segregratory. Second, the onus of providing a truly diverse living and learning experience lies primarily in the hands of the individual, not the administration or any cultural, religious or ethnic group. Third, community building and community sharing are not exclusive. That is, it is possible to strengthen your community -- be it racial, religious, ethnic or social -- and identity while sharing, growing and learning from the larger community, Penn. This University is more diverse that it has ever been. According to admission statistics, more than 35 percent of our undergraduate student body is identifiable as students of color. This can be attributed in part to progressive policies on the part of our administration, government initiatives, changes in national demographics and shrinking international borders. While we must realize the significant advances that have been made since the days when this University was all white and male, we must also recognize that not enough is being done to recruit and retain certain groups of color on this campus. Where are the Native Americans in our entering classes? Why has the proportion of Latinos not changed comparative to their numbers in this country? Where are our black males on graduation day? Why are certain Asian-American ethnicities well represented on campus but not others? This University has come a long way, but has much further to go. For me, the Unity Week discussion highlighted the fact that within us exists the potential for a living and learning experience that few can rival anywhere else in the world. Penn's student body is diverse -- we hail from all continents. Furthermore, our University supports groups, events, activities and initiatives that enhance and promote this diversity. Our administration is responsible for providing an optimal living and learning environment for each student and for supporting our personal and educational advancement. However, it is up to us to fully utilize the opportunities that are presented to us. After all, what good is a diverse student body where people do not interact across the social boundaries created by race and ethnicity? Let us not allow our preconceived notions to deter us from realizing all that Penn has to offer.

GUEST COLUMNIST: From the streets to the ivory tower, racism endures

(03/01/00 10:00am)

I am writing as an angry black man who wants to address the complacency and indifference that he witnesses on this campus. Last Friday, four white New York City police officers were acquitted on charges of killing Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant. Forty-one bullets were fired. Although police testimony states that Diallo was "stopped and questioned" before the bullets were shot, neighborhood witnesses report that they heard no such conversation. And, as The Washington Post reported from the coroner's autopsy, "Diallo was hit by a crippling, spine-splitting shot in the chest 'early on' [and] most of the other bullets struck him as he was either falling or flat on his back." It turns out that the officers mistook a black wallet for a gun. The Post also reported that the accused officers were "part of a unit of plainclothes officers who are accused of frisking young black men without cause." Presidential candidate Bill Bradley addressed the situation succinctly: "A wallet in the hand of a white man is a wallet, while a wallet in the hand of a black man is a gun." To me, the Diallo case is symptomatic of the racism that plagues our society. What angers me is that this racism permeates all levels, including institutions of higher learning such as this one. One of my acquaintances spoke at the Call to Action 2000 rally in defense of affirmative action and has since received threatening e-mails. One expresses a hope that he "die before graduation" and another suggests that there are minority students at this school who are not qualified to be here. It is evident to me that, contrary to popular belief, racism is not only perpetuated by Klan members or hot-headed police officers. It is perpetuated by our acceptance of the status quo, by our apathy. It is perpetuated by our peers. This University is a haven for those of us in pursuit of intellectual excellence and professionalism, but we remain uninformed and sheltered. We debate and we theorize, yet we are afraid to walk beyond 43rd Street after 6 p.m. We disagree about the need for affirmative action programs and condemn "self-segregation" on campus, but every night and weekend we surround ourselves with the comfort of our circles of friends. The fact of the matter is that the people who should participate in these discussions do not. It is interesting that those who are adamantly critical of the self-segregation they perceive on campus avoid the Greenfield Intercultural Center and DuBois College House. They also do not attend events hosted by the United Minorities Council, UMOJA, the Asian Pacific Student Coalition, the Latino Coalition or any of their constituent groups. All of these organizations open most of their events to the entire University in an effort to educate the larger community about their issues and cultures. But many of us will leave Penn as uninformed as when we arrived because we don't take advantage of these opportunities. We take for granted that we live in an environment of privilege and opportunity -- the same environment Amadou Diallo sought when he emigrated from Guinea. But Diallo lost his life needlessly, and his killers were acquitted. I am not asserting that the police officers went out that day with the intention of killing an unarmed black man. I am, however, pointing out that there is inherent racism in a system that was created without everyone in mind, where the police force does not represent the population it serves. Whether intended or not, a man lies dead, with no justice. Yet, we still sit here idle? This is my appeal for you to get involved politically, academically or socially -- I don't care how. Please, challenge what you know.

GUEST COLUMNISTS: The power of diversity

(02/14/00 10:00am)

In his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked that, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." Last year, the United Minorities Council and the Undergraduate Assembly began a partnership, but the impetus was personal, not political. Two friends, Chaz Howard, the former UMC chair, and Bill Conway, the former UA chair, used their relationship to informally bring together two organizations that had little previous interaction. Chaz continued his efforts this fall, and the UA eagerly accepted his overtures. Slowly, the alliance began to crystallize. The UMC joined the UA Steering Committee, and the UA appointed a liaison to the UMC. In addition, a race relations dialogue began between members of the UA, the UMC and the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education. But these were small steps that were not ends unto themselves. There is much more to be done, and all along we knew that. This semester, we hope to build upon this foundation and consummate a substantive, real partnership with tangible goals. Recently, the executive boards of the UA and the UMC met and outlined their collective agenda for collaboration this semester. First, the diversity committee that engaged in dialogue last semester is now working toward turning their productive conversations into action. It plans on holding seminar groups led by Program for Awareness in Cultural Education moderators. Ultimately, the committee hopes that the administration will allow discussion groups on diversity to be held during New Student Orientation. Secondly, service to the community is a priority for both organizations. Within the next few months, the UA and UMC together will participate in a joint service project. In addition, the UA West Philadelphia Committee is busy planning Ivy Corps, an event on April 8 when students across the Ivy League will simultaneously engage in community service initiatives. The UMC will be active in planning this exciting venture, which may also include a West Philadelphia 5K run. Thirdly, it is important that we open up the channels of communication for us to attain our common goals. We will set up a joint listserv for the executive boards of the UA and UMC, and we plan on holding a joint meeting for all members within the coming weeks. Furthermore, we intend for our organizations to meet regularly with the political arms of the Asian Pacific Student Coalition, UMOJA (representing black student groups), the Latino Coalition and the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance. These four groups are closely tuned to the specific minority communities each represents, and we will work to better connect with their constituents. Finally, we hope this formalized alliance will break down perceptions within the larger student body that have hindered our two groups to date. Minorities are underrepresented on the UA and, in past years, the organization struggled to address the concerns of the minority community. Similarly, the UMC has encountered difficulty in articulating that its message is relevant and pertinent to the entire campus community. Through this partnership, each group legitimizes the other. The UMC will encourage more minority students to run for the UA, and the UA will continue to publicize and support UMC events. Issues of diversity are of incredible significance at Penn -- but they are often overlooked. People, including campus leaders, are uncomfortable talking about them. They are further reluctant to take the initial steps to break down the barriers and stereotypes that divide. We view diversity as an intellectual concept with educational and personal benefits. Only when this is acknowledged can we face the gamut of social and political issues like retention and recruitment of minorities and faculty, perceived self-segregation on campus and distribution of financial aid. As Nelson Mandela wrote, "I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest -- to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment -- for my long walk has not yet ended." The UA and the UMC have come a long way since last spring, but only now have we begun to recognize our inescapable network of mutuality. Our organizations have much to gain from this partnership. However, all of us -- administration, faculty and students alike -- must play a role as we begin to unleash the power of diversity at Penn.