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Students discuss racial environment at ND

Claire Heininger | Wednesday, February 18, 2004

In what started out as a forum to debate affirmative action and became a free-flowing discussion of race at Notre Dame, approximately 70 students and faculty met in the Coleman-Morse Center Tuesday night to air their beliefs about diversity – but often wondered if they were preaching to the choir.Several times throughout the debate, students who chose to speak expressed concern that while the dialogue was extremely valuable, it was being conducted mostly by minorities and, therefore, was not reaching the audience that they felt needed to hear it most.Junior Katrina Picon said that she had encouraged several of her Caucasian friends to attend the discussion, but that most offered her excuses instead – a response she viewed as a reluctance to share in the responsibility for creating change.”You can’t baby-sit these kids, you can’t drag them by the hand every time,” Picon said. “It takes an assertive, mature person to pay attention to these issues and to engage in them too.”She challenged white students to test themselves by becoming exposed to discussions about topics they find uncomfortable. Colleen Case, also a junior, agreed that the power of “suggestion” was not enough to combat the apathy that the majority of the student body has shown toward discussions of race.While the diverse racial backgrounds represented in the audience made some of their points less influential, most students agreed that the need to address perceptions about race on campus is glaring.”My problem is walking down the quad and seeing people who look at me wondering if I only got in because of the color of my skin,” said Gabriel Torres, a junior. Other students agreed that regardless of the legacies, athletes, women and other beneficiaries that often get thrown into the mix, any discussion of affirmative action will inevitably be intertwined with race.”You try to tiptoe around it like it’s a policy issue,” Ukachi Okoronkwo, a sophomore, said. “But it is a racial issue. Racism exists … it’s not something you can turn your back on.””We do need this crutch,” she continued, referring to a metaphor that has been associated with using affirmative action as a tool for minority empowerment. “This country has broken our legs.”Joyce Randall, a sophomore, also insisted that “you can’t eliminate racial preference from the argument,” and reminded listeners that the initial purpose of affirmative action, when proposed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, was to create a level playing field. “All I really want is my opportunity,” she said. “I want to come from my poor Chicago neighborhood to go to Notre Dame – even if I need special help to get there.” However, other speakers disagreed that minorities needed an extra boost, leading into the issue of fairness in applicants’ qualifications. “The application process is the entire process – the whole person, not ‘you’re black, you get in,'” said junior Demetrius Hall. “It’s ‘you’re black, you’re salutatorian, you have a 3.8 GPA, your SAT is 1160 but that’s because your mom couldn’t afford to pay for prep courses … so let me give her a second look.”Speaking from firsthand experience with the Notre Dame admissions process, First Year of Studies adviser and former admissions counselor Christy Fleming contradicted the assumption that affirmative action results in less qualified minority applicants taking “spots” from more qualified white applicants for the sole reason of race.”If we took that [racial] hook off their application, they’d be here anyway,” Fleming said, listing off recent figures of black enrollment. “If you think that one of 67, one of 74, one of 90 took a spot from a white student, you are gravely mistaken.”Discussion also focused on the performance of minority students once they reach the University. Senior Andrea deVries said that although she is black, her own “extra step” came from a phone call from an uncle who sits on the Board of Trustees – and that neither should matter.”I don’t know if I needed that extra step, but that’s not my concern – my concern is what I do once I’m here,” she said. Case reinforced deVries’ argument, praising minority students who are hall presidents and exceptional student leaders. She warned the audience, whites and minorities alike, not to fall into the trap of thinking about admittance to Notre Dame as an entitlement.”Being at Notre Dame is a privilege, not a right,” Case said. “No one has a right to be here – you earn it … you prove that you belong here.”Two faculty members with exceptional perspectives on race at Notre Dame also weighed in. Chandra Johnson – a self-described affirmative action applicant as a 38-year old black female in 1992 who is now an assistant to University president Edward Malloy – praised students in attendance for engaging in an intellectual discussion instead of an angry one.She added that students did not need to experience guilt about the racial tension that exists today.”Nobody here created this situation – we were born into it and no one should feel guilty,” Johnson said. “But we are responsible for exploding categories … your generation will break down the categories my generation has put in place.”Peace studies professor George Lopez, who moderated the discussion, closed with similar empathy.”This is also a faculty crisis – we’re with you in this,” he said. “Professors [are expected to] teach and certify about a world that our University doesn’t represent.””Everyone here is privileged by a choice,” he continued. “We need more ability to choose, to make the mix look like the world that’s out there and the world from which you came.”