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COLUMN

Prejudice

Guest Column
J.D. Zamfirescu

Outraged. That is how I felt when I read Matthew Brown’s guest column in the Sept. 6 issue of The Tech entitled MIT Race Relations. Mr. Brown decries the Office of Minority Education (OME) as an organization that “only serve[s] to separate races, destroying any progress that has been made in the widespread acceptance of racial equality.” Mr. Brown argues against the political correctness of “excluding the majority” claiming that as long as racial distinctions exist in our lives, racism will exist in our society, and calls on MIT to provide services and opportunities to all who need them, and not just to minorities. Unfortunately, Mr. Brown does not realize the irony of his words.

I mean no offense to Mr. Brown. There was a time when I, too, felt the same way he does. Why is so much effort put into providing support services for minorities when they are not the only ones who need these services? Aren’t we just replacing prejudice and racism in one direction with prejudice and racism in the other? How much racism is there, anyway? We’ve come a long way since the days of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement: laws are fair, there’s no outward discrimination in public places, no one is forced to the back of the bus. Why are we now instituting reverse prejudice and reverse racism? These are some of the questions I asked myself about projects such as Affirmative Action.

Over the years, however, I have come to realize not only the extent to which prejudice exists but how pervasive and how overlooked it really is in American culture. I remember an article I once read about the omnipresence of racism in America. It concluded with the line: and let’s not forget the impossibility of getting a cab in Manhattan after dark as a black man. I thought to myself -- why would it be so difficult for a black man to get a cab after dark? And I realized that the cab drivers were probably afraid that a killer or robber would pose as a fare. How could a cabbie rapidly tell if a potential fare were dangerous? Only by the color of the man’s skin.

Mr. Brown would surely concede that a cabbie service for black men in New York City that runs after dark would provide a service that is needed, a service for individuals who are otherwise unable to obtain an equivalent service through traditional means.

But the same sort of prejudice that exists in the minds of night-shift cabbies also exists in the minds of professors, administrators, clerical workers, financial aid officers, admissions office personnel, and every other member of this great nation of ours. One strength of our society lies in the acknowledgment of that prejudice and in our motivation to act, to overcome it and to finally eradicate racism from our minds altogether. Until then, however, we will still have the proven influence on our conscious minds of our subconscious prejudice against certain minority groups.

It is because this prejudice exists, it is because minority students may feel intimidated by the thought of walking into an office full of white people to ask for help when they need it -- I suspect Mr. Brown might have even just an inkling of apprehension at going to ask for help in an office full of black or Chinese individuals. It is because the Welcome Luncheon may as well be called the “Majority Orientation Welcome Luncheon: For Whites Only” since it is directed toward the majority of the MIT population and discusses issues perhaps of interest more to white individuals than minority group members. It is because traditional support channels may not be appealing to members of minority groups that the Office of Minority Education is a very necessary office.

I urge Mr. Brown to picture himself a member of the freshman class of 2006 at Beijing Normal University, one of the best technical schools in China, the MIT of the People’s Republic. A freshman in a class that is overwhelmingly Chinese, where when he sits in a seat in the auditorium the seat next to him is the last to be filled, where everyone assumes that he has different personality, a different outlook on life, different interests, has had a different high school experience, and is different in every other way imaginable.

Perhaps, then, a welcoming luncheon sponsored by the Office of Minority Education: For Whites might seem rather appealing. And yet somehow it would be of only little help in what were sure to be four years of subtle and not-so-subtle prejudice and discrimination.

Just as Mr. Brown does, I, too, hope the world will someday have no need for ethnic labels, or perhaps will use them as labels for Americans of various European descent are used now, as an object of conversation, not discrimination, of connection, not rejection. Where being French or Italian or Japanese or Senegalese or South African or Mexican or Malaysian or Ethiopian makes one more interesting, not disadvantaged; where ethnicity enriches instead of detracts.

The Office of Minority Education is not an instrument against this utopian state, it is an organization whose goal is the same as both mine and Mr. Brown’s: the eventual eradication of the negative associations of words such as African American and Mexican. By giving support to all members of the MIT community, to majority groups through the counseling service and to minority groups through the OME, MIT is showing its interest in the well-being of all its students, not just those in the majority ethnic group. These organizations are what help MIT be at the forefront of the fight against discrimination; hardly do they hold us back.

The United States enjoys such a great equality between races and genders because institutions of racial and gender equality serve above all to increase public awareness of discrimination. For only awareness can help us begin our long process of overcoming our societal inclination towards discrimination.

J.D. Zamfirescu is a member of the Class of 2005.