Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law School professor and civil rights attorney, joined MIT Assistant Professor Melissa Nobles of political science, Senior Associate Dean Isaac M. Colbert, senior Eto Otitigbe and graduate student La Tonya Green last Thursday on a panel entitled "Questioning Race: Is BLACK black?" The Race2000 event was sponsored by the Committee on Campus Race Relations (CCRR) and moderated by Dean Ayida Mthembu.
Professor Guinier said the poor are like ice -- frozen in the community with little or no mobility. When heat -- which she called "resources" -- is applied, people become more fluid; when additional heat is applied, they evaporate like vapor and disappear, she said.
Professor Guinier told the audience that the tradition of rugged individualism was a roadblock to developing a sense of community, sometimes adversely affecting black students' academic progress.
To illustrate her point, she recalled a story about a professor who was teaching algebra to a diverse group of students. The Chinese and Chinese-American students were doing well in the class and the black students were not doing as well.
The professor discovered that the Chinese and Chinese-American students were studying in groups and exchanging ideas in social settings, while the black students were studying alone at home. He redesigned the class to include study groups, and grades went up across the board.
Panelists and the audience discussed several topics, including the effect that the influx of African and Caribbean immigrants has had.
Dean Colbert said coalitions are the key to bridging the differences created by political, economic, social and class lines. He said staff and faculty had to provide the impetus for creating new rituals that will help focus the black community at MIT on academics.
He said he used to be able to look at black people and assume that because of their skin color, they shared similar life experiences. He can't do that anymore, he said, because of the diversity of the experiences of people who have black skin or look black. Some black people don't see race and/or racism as a big issue in their lives, he added.
Professor Nobles said the atmosphere at MIT makes community building difficult for all students, which affects minority students more acutely since there are fewer of them. She noted that the end of Jim Crow and immigration restrictions led to the growth of a black middle class, creating greater diversity among blacks. Consequently, poor and working-class people have been left behind, creating division within the black community.
Diversity in the black community has brought other issues to the forefront, Ms. Greene noted. In the 1950s and '60s, a sense of community was instilled in people early in life. Now, "everyone wants to be an individual," she said. "How do you create community in this kind of atmosphere?"
While the black students at MIT belong to many different groups, outsiders see those groups as all the same, Mr. Otitigbe said. Individuals must be accountable for incorporating community into their daily lives, he said. For him, this means tying everything he does at MIT into his passion.
A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 26).