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Joe Trombello | Thursday, February 19, 2004

He’s been called a nigger more times than he can count and was strung up on a tree by a makeshift noose in elementary school, but Alvin Tillery, assistant professor of political science, considers his experiences with prejudice to be mild in comparison with those suffered by his parents and grandfather.Tillery’s early experiences with racism and prejudice – both personally experienced and related to him by family members – have motivated him in part to pursue his current academic work on identity and politics. Tillery said that he wanted to understand why others treated him so differently.”My push into the field began as a search of answers as I found myself [victim to] forms of racism,” he said. “It pushed me to want to know things … why I was being treated differently.”Growing up in Glassboro, N.J., Tillery and his parents lived in an integrated community, and one where he quickly perceived differences between himself and the white majority. Tillery said that as a child, he was often subject to racial slurs.”It was almost as if my name were ‘nigger’ when I was growing up,” he said. “Every single day, on the way to school, home from school, the playground, [I was called that].”Tillery also recounts an experience where a white friend with whom he carpooled asked Tillery’s mother to drop him off a block away from school, so he would not be seen walking into school with a black child.”He said, ‘I just don’t want the other kids to see me with Alvin, because they’ll call me a nigger-lover.’ “Tillery said that these early experiences, as well as his suffering of a mock-lynching during elementary school, “devastated” his parents.”They felt like integration was something of a sham,” he said.He also said that despite a comfort level with teachers during elementary and high school, he never felt completely comfortable with some of his peers. “Interaction with student bodies never made [me] feel like [I] really belonged,” he said.In retrospect, however, Tillery said he harbors no ill will toward those who discriminated against him.After attending Morehouse College, a historically black institution, and Harvard University, Tillery joined the Notre Dame faculty in 2000. He says he has earned a reputation for holding what he calls controversial viewpoints, including support for the payment of reparations to black Americans for the legacies of slavery and segregation. “I believe that states have a responsibility to fix problems they create, like the race problem,” he said. “The state made this problem by failing to enforce the citizenship rights of black Americans until 1965. This means that black Americans missed out on important social benefits, like patronage in the late 19th century and the G.I. Bill for World War II veterans in the middle of the last century, both of which fundamentally expanded the American middle class.”Tillery said that although he was reluctant to articulate these opinions in his early years as a professor, he now uses his positions to encourage students who feel differently to prove his arguments fallacious. “My job is to encourage debate and to challenge – that might lead me to become unpopular,” he said. “I hope that students would read my opinions on the issue and if they still think that I’m wrong – prove me wrong. If that happens, I’ve succeeded as a professor.”He recalls a specific incident when a student called him the “Jessie Jackson of Notre Dame” as indicative of the reasons why he began integrating his opinions and research into classroom discussion. Tillery said that he wants to set students straight on his stance on issues rather than have them make faulty assumptions regarding his opinions. “[I realized] I may as well start telling students what I believe because they are going to assume that about me [otherwise].” Tillery also said that despite past experiences with racism, he has been encouraged by Notre Dame’s public commitment to diversity and affirmative action and feels well-supported by the administration and colleagues. “Notre Dame is working very hard and has gone on record as saying they are going to put resources behind the African and African-American studies department and the recruitment of more faculty of color,” he said. “They are doing this at a time when universities across the country are scaling back their commitments to diversity … they have stood by affirmative action and diversity in a way that is very admirable.”