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Race is a campus issue that needs airing, panel says

The MIT Center for Reflective Community Practice hosted a forum to discuss the role of race and racial identity at MIT and explore areas of tension related to racial issues within the Institute. The Nov. 16 forum was held in conjunction with the launch of a new report from the center titled "Vital Difference: The Role of Race in Building Community."

Ceasar McDowell, Associate Professor of the Practice of Community Development, is director of The MIT Center for Reflective Community Practice (CRCP) and co-author of the new report (see related story), which argues that race--often considered divisive--can actually play a significant role in uniting underserved communities.

McDowell served as moderator of the discussion, which included seven panelists from MIT and provided an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to talk openly about campus racial issues.

Chancellor Phillip Clay, a professor of city planning, set the general tone for the evening by noting that race is too seldom addressed in American society or on college campuses. Clay and other panelists contrasted the current campus mood with their own college experiences in the 1960s, when universities were at the center of the discourse on civil rights.

"In 1964, the topic of race was everywhere--on TV, in books, in the writings of Malcolm X and Nikki Giovanni," said Clay. "It would have been hard to go through that time without having to confront issues of race in some way."

Forty years later, people have a sense that progress has been made, and they often dismiss race as a non-issue. A mindset of "we've been through it, now let's ignore it," is not uncommon on campus, said panelist Karen Nilsson, director of Housing.

Yet problems still exist even at MIT, agreed the panelists. Although 90 countries are represented on campus and major outreach efforts are under way to bring more underrepresented minority and other underserved students and faculty here, more attention needs to be paid to race.

Panelists and audience members discussed the prevalence of self-segregation in living groups, social circles and dining rooms as one manifestation of a racial problem. The intensive focus on academics at MIT means that graduate students in particular simply don't have the bandwidth to focus on race or other issues of campus life, said one student in the audience. Another student said that issues related to race were most acute with faculty members, who often seem uncomfortable talking about race.

Panelist Sally Haslanger, associate professor of philosophy, said the problem lies not only in MIT's "white-centric culture," but with the "neural disembodiment" of scientific thought. "In an institution that values the objectivity of science, do we value race or do we deny race and become one of the club? Or do we acknowledge our own race, and not get into the club?" Haslanger said.

Clay acknowledged that some people believe talking about race is at odds with MIT's meritocracy. "They ask: 'How can we introduce anything other than merit into the conversation?'" he said.

Not all the comments were negative. People spoke of the joy of organizing campus events that deal with issues of race and culture, such as the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast. Others spoke of their work on issues related to race and their efforts to keep the dialogue going.

For McDowell and those in the CRCP, the hope for MIT lies in the theme of the "Vital Difference" report--racial identity can help, not hinder, community building. "Only if you acknowledge and ground yourself in your own identity can you start to build effective multiracial coalitions," McDowell said.

Other panelists were Margarita Ascencio, assistant director of the Office of Minority Education; Jacob Faber, a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP); Jonathan Harris, a junior in DUSP; and Tobie Weiner, undergraduate administrator in the Department of Political Science.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 8, 2004 (download PDF).

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