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No Easy Solution to Racism

Ken Nesmith

On Friday of Spring Weekend, members of the Roots engaged in a miniature scuffle with some brothers at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. In responding to some statements that were not racially neutral, members of the hip-hop group ran to the roof deck to face the brothers. ATO took action shortly after the incident, issuing a hasty apology to the MIT community and expelling two brothers.

Given their insistent claims of tolerance, this fraternity has repeatedly run afoul of what might be called politically correct or even acceptable behavior in the last few years. The group has been involved with infractions involving alcohol, parties, rush violations, and most notably, an incident involving hate mail from a brother to a gay student which expressed the hope that all homosexuals would be strung up on barbed wire fences in Wyoming. These actions form an unfortunate pattern, and it is irresponsible to present MIT’s censure of such behavior as a witch hunt against fraternities.

Today, racism in America is relatively rarely expressed in the form of the irrational aggression that has been typical of the past. In recent years, programs that give special entitlement to blacks and other minorities have come under attack, and those leading the charge have landed serious blows in various legal decisions, including an overturning of affirmative action in California and a similar impending decision in Michigan. Battles rage in several other states.

Those resistant to such programs have advocated the idea that our position in life is directly determined by our own abilities and skills. If we are more able, we succeed, and we arrive at social and economic prosperity. If we are not able to offer marketable services, then we will go nowhere. Any structure that gives an underprivileged ethnic group an advantage has the effect of rewarding mediocre performance, and is contrary to the fundamental nature of free market economics.

As has been noted, this complaint is oddly leveled almost solely against blacks and other racial minorities, even though there are other important instances where similar practices are followed. Somehow, conservatives have found it inappropriate to lambaste Ivy League institutions that give weighted preference to legacy students, despite the fact that this practice is identical to the racial preferencing.

At MIT, U.S. citizens enjoy a healthy benefit in the admissions process when admissions separates international and domestic applications. The effect is that it is much more difficult for international applicants to gain admission.

What though of the claim that our national economic supremacy can be attributed entirely to America’s free economic structure, which allows any individual to succeed through his own hard work and initiative? Anyone, regardless of race, gender, or creed, it is argued, can rise to a position corresponding to their abilities. Usually, the argument is accompanied by an anecdote or two concerning a high-ranking black official or some other accomplished minority.

Consider, though, the following information, drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau: blacks are over twice as likely as other races to be poor. They are less likely to have received post-high school education -- 85 percent of whites have, vs. 75 percent for blacks -- and eight times more likely to be imprisoned. They occupy far fewer executive or upper managerial positions in corporate America than do whites. Black-owned firms comprise just 3.6 percent of all firms in the U.S., and the corresponding revenue generated by these businesses is one percent of total revenue. Blacks are convicted of drug violations over three times as frequently as are whites. Recent evidence brought forward in a discrimination lawsuit against the FBI showed that blacks were much less likely to be promoted and rewarded in the organization than whites, and were much more likely to face disciplinary action for misconduct.

Of these, the most salient statistic is that blacks, on average, simply make less money than whites. In the economic framework cited as the foundation of our great nation, blacks do not perform as well as whites. Given our premise concerning America’s economic structure, there are three possible conclusions one can draw from these facts.

The first is that racist elements still exist within our society, and it may take government action to counterbalance these elements. This charge is routinely denied and dismissed with curious zeal, but it may deserve more exploration. The second possibility is that blacks have not overcome the handicaps left by hundreds of years of slavery and the following period of discrimination. Consequently, it may again be necessary to offer a hand up to set them on equal footing.

The final conclusion is that the black race is inferior. If everyone is on equal footing, as the pages of a right-wing editorial page would have you believe, then blacks are not able to perform as well as members of other races. There is something inherent to being black which means that one is less likely to perform as well in society as those who are not black. On average, you will make less money, go to jail more frequently, use more drugs, and hold inferior employment positions, if you are employed at all.

No conservative, or anyone else for that matter, would ever openly admit to this sort of racism. But their logic leads naturally to this conclusion. They angrily deny it to themselves, and they deny it to the world. It is unfortunate and destructive that this is so.

Race relations suffer within American society, where tensions still exist and in some cases are growing. A recent analysis of census data showed a “white-flight” phenomenon, in which white families move away from urban areas of concentrated black population to the comfortable suburbs. Our recent clashes with China increased anti-Chinese sentiment by several estimates, and editorial pieces addressing David Horowitz’s campaign to defeat the reparations movement and Justin Fong’s severe ridicule of Asians at Harvard have gained wide visibility in the mainstream media.

Then there is the everyday complacence into which we inevitably fall, when we cease to notice that those performing menial tasks that are generally considered undesirable or degrading are minorities.

On Tuesday, several dozen students gathered on the steps of the student center to “Speak Out.” Their goals were not exceptionally concrete in nature, but they sought to foster discussion of issues concerning race, gender, and diversity. The event felt slightly gratuitous; the day-to-day experience of most MIT students does not reveal any inhibitive racial tension. Not five hours later that evening, in the same spot where protesters had gathered dramatically, students of every race relaxed together on Kresge Oval, throwing frisbees, munching food together, doing work, or just chatting; whites, Indians, Asians, Hispanics, blacks, and others alike.

In the wake of the ATO incident, we have had and will have endless calls for increased discussion about cultural differences, tolerance, sensitivity training, etc. ad nauseum. These calls will likely produce a cynical response in most who hear them, and with good reason: they seldom accomplish much. It could be that living in a diverse college community is as good an educator as we can hope to create, and it may be a sufficient one, even if we are not able to perfectly plan the results of this unique education.

Perhaps then it is time to stop seeking the same tired solutions, because they are failing us. Perhaps it’s time to pause in our lives and to make it a point to personally explore our own feelings about members of other races and cultural groups. Perhaps it’s not time to reflexively respond to a relatively minor incident consisting of a humorous quote from a movie and a derogatory comment that may or may not have included a racial slur with a harried frenzy of rushed and ineffective solutions.

There is a race problem in America, and it is not going away. The solutions we thought we had found have proven to be impermanent and ineffective, mere sand walls. This is not an easy problem. I don’t pretend to have an answer. Neither should others.