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The Necessity of Minority Programs

Guest Column
Christine E. Casas

With all due respect, I think Matthew Brown misunderstands the nature of race relations in his column [“MIT Race Relations,” September 6]. Firstly, he does not understand the purpose and importance of the Office of Minority Education (OME) to an institution like MIT. As a Mexican-American student who has worked for the OME and participated in its programs, I think it is unfair for Brown to label the OME merely as an organization that serves to maintain “political correctness” on the MIT campus. “Politically correct” has negative connotations, and Brown uses the word incorrectly because he suggests that MIT only uses the OME to put up a faÇade or to make the school “look good” in the eyes of those who call for social reform. This is not so.

As a world-class institution that produces leaders and thinkers, MIT should be (and is) at the forefront of social reform. Additionally, part of MIT’s mission, as stated in the booklet, MIT Facts 2002, is to “combine rigorous academic study and the excitement of discovery with the support and intellectual stimulation of a diverse campus community.”

Thus, the OME exists because it plays a crucial role in ensuring that MIT is a welcoming environment for students who, throughout history, have been excluded from higher education. By working to improve the academic and social experience of minority students from groups underrepresented in higher education in the United States (African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans), the OME serves a vital and positive function. If MIT did not have the OME, it would be ignoring a fundamental aspect of its mission.

Furthermore, the OME does not “destroy communication between the races” because its programs work to prevent the circumstances that lead to lack of communication in the first place. I don’t know Brown’s racial/ethnic background, but it seems to me he does not understand what separates the races. There can be no effective communication when one racial group feels uncomfortable for whatever reason.

For underrepresented minorities, discomfort sometimes comes from knowing that they only make up a very small percentage of the student body, from knowing that underrepresented minority professionals makeup an even smaller percentage of the faculty (4.4 percent are underrepresented minorities), or from suspecting that some people will lower their expectations of them simply because they are a minority.

These problems are very real, and the OME exists to address them by providing support to the minority community. It is this very support that helps minority students integrate into the MIT community at large. The OME does not exist to advance segregation or to “destroy any progress that has been made in the widespread acceptance of racial equality.”

This brings me to my second point, which is that Brown seems to misunderstand the status of race relations at MIT and in the real world. In his explanation of the hypothetical “Whites Only” luncheon, Brown is on to something, but the wrong thing. He grapples with the issue of a “double standard” when, in fact, he should focus on racial privilege that exists in society at large and at MIT.

When you make up 53% of the student body (as whites do, according to “MIT Facts 2002”), there is no question that you are welcome at a luncheon, regardless of whether the invitation says “Whites welcome” or not. You are automatically and implicitly welcome because you make up the majority of society and because, for the most part, to be white is to not have to think about yourself in racial terms. (This has generally been established, but if you don’t believe me, read White Privilege: Essential Readings On The Other Side of Racism edited by Paula S. Rothenberg.)

Now, I have nothing against Whites, but my point is that putting “Whites only” on a banner is nowhere near being analogous to putting something like “For minorities” on a banner, because the two groups are not equal in society. They are not equal on many levels -- socially, economically, and, most importantly, in terms of identity. While whites do not have to come to grips with their whiteness (although they should), minorities have to come to grips with their non-whiteness and, as a result, with their place in the racial hierarchy. It is therefore incorrect for Brown to claim that a minority luncheon exemplifies a spirit of discrimination.

The luncheon exists because, unfortunately, we live in a world that does not (and has not) always make underrepresented minorities feel welcome. If anything, Brown should be furious not that his racial/ethnic group fails to be invited to the minority luncheon (this misses the point), but that there is the need for such an event in the first place. “Why are we excluding anybody at all?” should be the question he asks of society, not of the OME. And one last word regarding the luncheon: An announcement inviting individuals of particular backgrounds to a welcome event is not a judgement call, as Brown implies -- it’s simply an invitation.

At the end of his column, Brown suggests that the real problem boils down to racial labels. I think he is correct when he states that “humanity can only succeed when these labels have all been destroyed or rendered meaningless.” However, in making such a statement, Brown refers to a “when” that society should is not ready to embrace. It’s as if he’s suggesting, rather naively, that if racial/ethnic labels were simply overlooked, society members would be truly equal. This is far from the truth.

Although people will argue to the contrary, race and ethnicity matter, perhaps more so now than in the past. They matter because they affect the way we think about our place in the world and, more importantly, the way we treat and judge people. If there is a problem (in this case, racial inequality), the only way to deal with it is to implement organizations that can help alleviate the symptoms -- this is where the OME comes in -- and to engage in dialogues that use pertinent language (this is where racial/ethnic support groups and Institute Committees such as the Campus Committee on Race Relations come in). In this case, the pertinent language includes racial labels.

In closing, there is nothing discriminatory about a minority luncheon. It is truly upsetting to read that Brown “expect[s] everyone else to be very angry that an event such as this is taking place, and even more so that it is sponsored and run by MIT.” Such words run counter to the mission of MIT and to the goal of racial equality that Brown so vigorously claims to advocate.

Christine E. Casas is a member of the Class of 2004.