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Students, Faculty Discuss Race Relations at Panel

By Erik Snowberg

Students, faculty, and staff came together Thursday to explore ways to bring together people of color with different backgrounds.

The panel discussion, entitled “Questioning Race: Is BLACK Black?”, was sponsored by the Campus Committee on Race Relations as part of its ongoing RACE 2000! series. The panel featured Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier, MIT Political Science Professor Melissa Nobles and MIT Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education Isaac M. Colbert.

Students share their experiences

The panel was the third in a series of discussions about communities of color. The first two discussions -- which took place earlier this year -- were small and informal. Videotaped segments of these discussions were played at the beginning of the panel to provide a starting point. These discussions focused on the personal experiences of MIT students, faculty and staff. An unidentified male student said in one of the segments that in his home town there were only African-Americans, but when he came to MIT he also met African and Caribbean students. He attributed his changing perceptions about the black community to his experiences with these students.

The panel also had two students, La Tonya Green G, and Eto Otitigbe ’99. Green emphasized that the black community “has always been diverse ... and will continue to be diverse.” She explained that it was still important to work to bridge gaps in background to form a community. She drew on her experiences as an undergraduate and concluded, “We need to have honest discussion on this issue because there is a sense of urgency, and we need to start before it is too late.”

Otitigbe said he believed in the importance of “[making] people aware of your issues.” He said that his primary function was to share information with the people around him and stated the importance of “linking your passions to your work.”

Community decline seen as issue

The panelists all emphasized the importance of community as a source of stability and support. They noted the decline in communities of color in recent years. Nobles attributed this decline to the abolition of Jim Crow laws in the south and the loosening of immigration restrictions in 1965. She also pointed to growing class divisions within the black community as sources of conflict.

Dean Colbert added, “When I see a black person in the halls, I can no longer assume just by the color of his skin that I really know what his life experiences are like... or that our aspirations are even similar.”

In a metaphor which reappeared several times throughout the night, Guinier compared black communities to water. She noted that when communities are poor and oppressed they act like water when it is frozen. “You can’t move one molecule without affecting all of the others,” she said. However, when heat is applied in the form of wealth, the community begins to act like water, and eventually like a gas, without forces to bind it together. Guinier posed the main question of the evening in a different way: “How do you form a community when everyone's drive is to evaporate?”

The panelists and audience gave examples of programs they had undertaken to build community at MIT. Audience members mentioned the Office of Minority Education (OME) and new alliances between Black Alumni at MIT (BAMIT) and the Black Student Union (BSU) as successful programs. Eve Sullivan, a member of MIT's support staff, said that training for the faculty on how to deal with issues in the African American community would be “wonderful.”

Jonathan White '00 told the panelists that students at MIT were realizing that a sense of community is important. “There is a growing interest in developing a community at MIT,” he said.

Citing his belief that a decline in interest in academics is correlated with a decline in community, Dean Colbert argued that organizers should focus on education. Guinier provided an example of a group study program for African Americans at the University of California which both increased test scores and a sense of community among its participants.

Guinier also encouraged the audience to fight against “the ideology of individualism,” and “one way libertarianism.”

The father of two prospective freshmen, Walter Malloy, rose to make the last audience comment. He said that he wanted his children to be “workhorses” and that the panelists were doing the students “a grave disservice by recruiting them for [the panelist’s] political agendas.” Green responded, “Of course you should not compromise your education, but you need to have a balance -- you need to work for community as well.”