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Panel discusses racial issues

Justin Tardiff | Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The life of Martin Luther King Jr. was celebrated in the Coleman-Morse Center Tuesday in the Town Hall meeting entitled “And Still We Rise … Remembering is Not Enough.”Led by Richard Pierce, assistant director of African American Studies, Notre Dame students joined in the open forum to discuss issues that King was passionate about. Topics ranged from the impact and reasons for stereotypes, diversity on campus and in the U.S. and why it seems like people of the same races sit together at the dining hall.Students noted that stereotypes are an integral part of human nature, a way for people to better identify and understand their surroundings. But students also said that the sign of a person’s intelligence is how one handles stereotypes – that is, whether stereotypes guide one’s thinking about others.Students of both majority and minority backgrounds voiced their opinions on diversity within America and at the University, many noting that Notre Dame is lacking in diversity. Controversy arose when one of the mediators offered a statistic: based on projected demographics, whites will become the U.S. minority in 2050, with 48 percent of the population in the United States. The mediator noted that this statistic combine all other races into one. Thus, in reality, whites will still be the majority.”I don’t ever think whites will become the minority. I don’t ever think they will become the majority in Niger,” freshman Justin Gray said.Gray stressed that the statistic fails to take into account the power structure impeding the progress of minority groups. The political system in the United States exists to cater to the majority’s needs, he added, saying that blacks were left out of the Declaration of Independence.Pierce, on the other hand, said that the issue is the way race functions today and not with the past.”Blacks were here when things began,” Pierce said. “They believed themselves to be covered by the Constitution.”Pierce said that race is an elastic concept, difficult to define. He emphasized that Notre Dame makes an effort to make race a non-issue in a number of ways, including random roommate assignments for first-year students.Gray, however, said that fundamental race issues at the University hinder any substantial progress.”In order for black people to entirely fit into Notre Dame, [the administration] would have to go back to 1842 when this University was founded and redraw the lines,” Gray said.Many minority students reflected on the lack of diversity and the need for minority students to be embraced on campus. One student said that, for her, this void was filled when she founded a Notre Dame club supporting black women called Shades of Ebony. Also discussed was the issue of the “black table” in the lunchroom.Pierce noted that he consistently sees the racial separation in the dining hall and in other places on campus.”You find these clusters of people sitting together almost by ethnic groups,” he said.One professor said that this sort of phenomena is explained by the segregation that still exists in America. Pierce drew on the words of Angela Davis, a major figure in the women’s right movement.”We all may live in the same house but sometimes you just need to go to your own room,” Pierce quoted.Minority students supported the “black table” by saying that sitting there is more about being comfortable, rather than about race. One girl, who said she is the only black student in most of her classes, argued that it is comforting to go to the dining hall and be with other blacks. Other minority students added the same practices exist in dorms after the first year. One minority student selected a non-white roommate for reasons of comfort; another said the minorities on her floor formed a minority section on one corner of the hall. One white girl, from a mostly black high school, said that her high school had a “white table.”With this in mind, the panelists urged that students step out of their comfort zones and break down the barriers of race on campus.

pleahy@nd.edu