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History’s Present

Philip Burrowes

In light of today’s annual MLK breakfast, I originally wished to discuss the special relevance of Black History Month to MIT. With Monday’s announcement that MITES and Interphase would cease to be “minority”-only programs, it would seem that news would supplant history as the topic of the day. Herein lies one of the reservations many have with a “History”-based celebration: it can obscure the conditions of the present. Such is, moreover, the perceived problem with the aforementioned programs; their focus on the racial iniquities of the past allows them to discriminate in the present. Can we truly understand their purpose, however, outside of a historical context?

MITES met the national spotlight in 1994, when one participant by the name of Cedric Jennings claimed that a warning -- declaring that his chances of getting into MIT were slim -- was a product of racism. Jennings has received attention before and since for his academic achievements in Washington D.C.’s “highest-crime area.” As a result, much of the coverage surrounding his MITES experience contrasted him with the largely well-to-do attendees. It was just another example of how much racially-based affirmative action had outlived its usefulness, where only the wealthiest minorities -- who ostensibly were no more disadvantaged than “mainstream” America -- were being “creamed” off the top.

While it lacks a past incident of such caliber to highlight it, one can easily imagine Interphase having a similar, or worse, (given the more rigorous standards of admissions to MIT as opposed to MITES) income skew. Since Interphase students are effectively in school two months before other freshman, there is also fear surrounding the creation of racial cliques that will last throughout MIT careers. Concentrations of minority students in the halls of East Campus in the nineties actually led to the program’s movement to Baker.

One would hope that by removing ethnicity from both programs, selection could be better focused on those who would most benefit. At the same time, there should be fears that they will lose their focus altogether. What will differentiate MITES from RSI? Might Interphase turn into an overextended Freshman Leadership Program (FLP), which is also oft-criticized for its participants’ cliquishness? Then again, would they be that horrible?

If we could generate a demographic breakdown of those who have entered the Lobby 10 installation, what would we see? As it stands, segregation at MIT is supposedly well known emotionally, if not empirically. Students can easily rattle off which groups seclude themselves in which dorms. It is the in-class and extracurricular variations that escape our scorn. How often will an audience at the Institute -- be it for LSC, a GIR lecture, or any of a myriad of student performance groups --approximate the diversity of the undergraduate body? The MLK breakfast itself will undoubtedly highlight this, for despite its appearance on the homepage Spotlight, it strikes many as just another discriminatory OME initiative. Earlier years’ speeches were tailored as such, which ultimately undermines the point.

Black History Month is not made for the people who hold it most near and dear. It is made for the people who don’t listen, who don’t care, or who are even offended by its presence. The target, then, is almost always wrong. We’d be better served by having an impromptu speech by Julian Bond in front of a Roadkill Buffet audience than right next to the BSU. A minority-focused program must never be construed as for minorities alone.

This brings us back to the future of MITES and Interphase. Why not make them like RSI and FLP? It would effectively eradicate them, a sure case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Maybe the focus should be for all economically disadvantaged applicants. A more diverse mix of students cooperating (or arguing) would at least serve Interphase better, if it’s truly about acclimation to MIT. Wholesale abandonment of the concept, however, will certainly not eliminate self-segregation, divergent academic success, or any of the other ills they attack, or are believed to be manifest.

Nor will we remember the good intentions of the programs in the earliest days. “Beneficiaries” and “disadvantaged” individuals in those initiatives need to communicate with each other to remember just why they should (or should not) be in their group.