Race debate


More than 300 students, faculty, and staff members (along with a generous helping of reporters) crowded into Hutchinson Commons Tuesday night for two hours of soul-searching over a dorm party whose theme and theatrics have roiled the campus and made headlines across the country. On October 14, a group of students in Max Palevsky’s May House hosted what they called a “straight thuggin” party, encouraging guests to come in hip-hop dress. Less than 20 students attended, but when pictures turned up online showing revelers in gold chains, sideways baseball caps, pants sagging below their underwear—one even wore handcuffs and carried a bottle in a paper bag—complaints about the party’s racial tilt rose to a clamor. In a letter e-mailed to the entire University community, President Don Randel deplored the “distressing episode” and urged a thorough reckoning of the issues it raised. Meanwhile, reporters from the Maroon, the Chicago Tribune, local television stations, MTV.com, and elsewhere swarmed the campus. The party made the op-ed pages of the Trib and the Chicago Defender.

Tuesday night, more than one administrator alluded to a routine “thoughtlessness” among whites on campus when it comes to race. English professor and newly appointed Deputy Provost for Research and Minority Issues Kenneth Warren likened the situation to “being among neighbors who are quite willing to turn down the music once you bang on the door, but who are incapable of the kind of forethought that would have modulated the music in the first place.” Office of Minority Student Affairs Director Ana Vazquez put University race relations in starker terms. Out of 400 graduate and undergraduate responses to a monthlong student-life survey ending October 5, Vazquez said, 65 minority students reported suffering racial and ethnic discrimination, and 51 said they “have had to de-emphasize their race in order to fit in.”

Passing microphones back and forth, students took up the debate, posing questions and positing theories about the broader meanings of the dorm party and campus reaction to it. One student rejected political correctness but said, “What I am asking my peers to do is think about how the stereotypes you have about minorities on campus affect the decisions you make. Just think about it.”

Economics major Ken Jones was exasperated that some of his white classmates didn’t seem to grasp the party’s offensive nature. “This is problematic,” he said, “and I’m tired of having to explain my feelings to the majority. … You intellectualize racism now.” Second-year Kristiana Colon seconded Jones’ frustration. “Race is something that white people can choose to deal with or not,” she said. “We don’t have that choice. The responsibility should not be mine to disabuse you of your ignorance.”

Provost Richard Saller asked the crowd to consider why last month’s party “resonated in the way it did.” Several speakers noted how the outcry was sharpened by the fact that African Americans make up only four percent of the College student body, and that the campus abuts several struggling black neighborhoods. Pointing to growing investment in improving schools and safety in the surrounding communities and measures on campus aimed at heightening racial sensitivity, administrators said the University is moving in the right direction. “I would not have accepted this position [at the Office of Minority Student Affairs],” said Vazquez, “if I did not believe there was a framework to build off of and a commitment” to resolving racial divisions.


Photo: Students and others mill about the Reynolds Club before the meeting.

November 9, 2005