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Race matters at Notre Dame

Peter Quaranto | Tuesday, December 7, 2004

The greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. In contemporary America, there has been a dominant politico-cultural push over the last two decades towards a post-race “colorblind” conception of society. While such a vision tickles the conscience, it fails to account for the very real racial divides and injustices that still exist throughout America as well as here under the Dome. On Nov. 30, the University fired Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham, leaving the black community stunned, disillusioned and angry. This sudden move not only called the priorities of the university into question, but highlighted racial divides that persist at Notre Dame. In this complex watershed moment for our University, it is crucial that we stop running from the reality that race matters.

The decision to fire Willingham, the first time ever that the University fired a coach before his initial contract expired, was made under a cloud of secrecy. And on Tuesday, a meeting was held Monday night, involving only seven men. Yet, it appears that the win-or-die mentality of a few Board of Trustees leaders was the driving force for the decision.

This win-or-die attitude is problematic for a University that prides itself on values, but even more problematic is that University officials failed to understand the racial implications of such an action. Before and after the decision, no one contacted or communicated with the black community of Notre Dame, especially certain black administrators. It is irresponsible and wrong that University officials failed to use more sensitivity regarding a decision that may not have been racially-motivated, but is certainly racially-impacting.

The response of black students has been outrage and disillusionment. Terri Baxter, president of Voices of Faith Gospel Choir, told me, “African-American students feel completely disillusioned because coach Willingham was a rare symbol that African-Americans do matter here.” Kamaria Porter, a fellow columnist and campus activist, said, “Ty was a face that black students could see to feel not totally out of the community. To see a whole stadium gesturing in reverence of an African-American man at the end of the third quarter, given the history, was a source of pride for so many of us.” Willingham was a leader, a role model and a source of inspiration for black students that feel displaced at this University.

Thus, the swift and insensitive departure of Willingham sends many signals to the black community. Many believe the recruitment of black students will suffer immensely. Jelani McEwen-Torrence, one of the founding leaders of Sustained Dialogue, said, “The Willingham firing shows that the University is not committed to making Notre Dame more diverse.”

Speaking with many black students, I found such disappointment and indignation to be the overwhelming consensus. Whether or not this is actually the case, perception is all that matters. And this changing perception will have significant ramifications for the future of our University.

Really understanding the impact of this moment requires understanding of the black experience at Notre Dame. Many black students feel they do not belong here, that they have no place within the Notre Dame narrative. Many have faced racial slurs, insulting remarks from rectors and feelings of alienation. Baxter told me, “Black people at Notre Dame are tired of being invisible.” Another student told me, “Every day, I regret coming here. I don’t want anyone else to go through this.” At Notre Dame and throughout America, many whites deceive themselves to believe 50 years of desegregation and 18 years of affirmative action can erase a 500-year history of the slavery, violence and segregation.

The racial landscape of Notre Dame needs to change, especially in this grave moment. Last year, students launched Sustained Dialogue, a group committed to breaking down stereotypes and promoting constructive dialogue. McEwen-Torrence, one of the founders, said, “It’s not that students here are racist. It’s that people are unwilling to go out of their comfort zone and step on anyone’s toes.” Pushing ourselves to go outside our comfort zones to see the experience of another is a key step, but one has to wonder if dialogue is enough.

The black community is organizing itself for action in the wake of the recent events, and we can only hope that they will act loudly before we head home for winter break. Rhea Boyd said to me, “When I first heard, I was shocked, disappointed and confused. Now that the shock has worn off, I am passionate for change.” Boyd believes the black community must act in this moment. I agree. Yet, even further, the whole of the Notre Dame community must act in this moment to speak for values and justice as opposed to profits and pride.

To simply perceive the situation in narrow terms of football prestige is to miss the broader ripple effects. The past week’s events have highlighted the long road we still have to march before our university fully commits itself to values of equality and justice. We find hope, though, from the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Peter Quaranto is a junior political science and international peace studies major. He will write from Uganda next semester where he will be studying. Contact Peter at pquarant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.