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Race issues on campus called into question

Levine is a sophomore politics major and can be contacted at benjamin.levine@drake.edu

If you didn’t know any better, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking Drake’s campus is stuck in the ‘60s. In late March, President Maxwell emailed all Drake students to remind us that it is important for us as a community to live the values that Drake holds to be true, and he urged us to sign a petition that called for an end to the “presence of racism on our campus.”

Certainly, this is a worthy goal and something we all should strive for. Racism is the worst form of collectivism — putting people into groups based on an arbitrary characteristic is truly abhorrent. However, in light of the campaign to end racism here, I think it is important to ask this: Does Drake really have a substantial problem with racism? I’m not convinced that it is as widespread as the recent uproar would make it seem.

As I am sure many are well aware, Maxwell and the writers of the petition were inspired to do something after a white woman in Jewett Hall allegedly yelled at a group of black students, telling them to “(G)et off our campus.” She went on and said, “We don’t want you on our campus. We don’t like…” The rest of the sentence was apparently inaudible.

While it is very plausibly racially motivated, I am very skeptical as to how these students spotted the woman and then recognized that she was white. Next time you’re on the painted street, look at Jewett and try to see in those windows; especially at night, there are lights on the side of the building, which further obstruct one’s view. When somebody yells at me from a dorm room above, it isn’t all that easy to spot where they’re yelling from.

Also, there have been rumors floating around — only rumors, therefore I do not know if they are valid — that the petition was created by a social media class at Drake. In my mind, it calls into question the motives of the petition. Again, I’m not sure if this is true.

However, while I remain skeptical, I am willing to accept the story as true and I feel for those students who were the victims of alleged hate speech. Yet I still do not believe that this is representative of a greater problem with accepting diversity at Drake. The petition, though, states outright that we need to “recognize that this is not an isolated incident, but part of a broader campus culture that pretends racism no longer exists.”

Really? Drake has a broad problem with ignoring racism? I would actually think that the contrary is true. Our mission statement highlights the need for “responsible global citizenship” and, as an example, during my PMAC training last year, the most stressed lesson was about multicultural understanding. We didn’t use the word “diversity” because it was too politically incorrect or something along those lines. If anything, I think Drake almost over-emphasizes the differences between cultures. Because  we focus on how different our cultures are, it distracts us from the real solution to limiting racism, which is treating every individual the same — no matter what they look like.

Simply put, I have not seen this supposed “broad problem” that Drake has and I think I know why: It does not exist. After the recent incident outside of Jewett, I am not surprised by the “knee-jerk” reaction of students and faculty. An incident like that, which should never happen, does have a silver lining and is an opportunity to discuss race and diversity. However, we also run the risk of over-emphasizing a problem that really is not present in broad terms at Drake.

Yes, there have been incidents of racism on campus. And, yes, we should try to limit them. Still, we would be greatly mistaken to think racism will simply disappear. So long as ignorance is a part of the human condition, which I suspect will be an issue for a long time, racism will also exist because it is developed out of that ignorance. While discussing race may help decrease these already isolated incidents, pretending that we have a bigger problem than we do will not be helpful to Drake as a community. Rather, I think it will do more damage than anything else.

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17 Comments

  1. David Skidmore April 23, 2012

    Don’t believe there is a problem? Read the piece in the Times Delphic based upon interviews with black students. Or, better yet, talk with some of your classmates who feel otherwise. You might be surprised what you learn.

  2. Devon Page April 23, 2012

    I think this individual lacks the necessary knowledge and information to properly determine whether or not Drake has a race problem. I have personally talked to several students on several different issues whom can give accounts of negative racially related experiences at Drake. To say that racism will always exist and we should accept it is quite a vacuous statement to make. The fact that some individuals may remain racist does not mean that we as a community should not continuously strive to end racism.

    While Drake University does strive as a university to be diverse, how often do the students themselves live a life involving diverse cultures and individuals? Drake’s emphasis on diversity does not directly address racism nor does Drake University make an effort to acknowledge the presence of racism on campus. It is likely that this individual has not experienced many (if any) racially related events simply because he is a member of the predominant race. I doubt anyone on campus has called him a “cracker” or any negative term in a derogatory manner.

    To call the reaction to this event a “knee-jerk” reaction mistakenly minimizes the importance of the March against racism. Not only have these events highlighted the presence of racism on Drake’s campus, but it does an effective job of highlighting the continuing prevalence of racism around the country. Clearly this individual has failed to listen to the entire message, causing him to reduce the importance of recent racially related events.

  3. N. P. April 23, 2012

    I have recently attended a student legislature meeting devoted to the recent campus incident, as well as several events hosted by the Coalition of Black Students. I can personally verify that numerous students of color have spoken out about their negative experiences with regards to Drake’s racial climate. It is now a question of whether we will listen to what these students are saying. As the author notes, he has “not seen this supposed ‘broad problem’ that Drake has” with “ignoring racism.” I sympathize with this observation. Many of us here on campus who are white (like me) have most likely not seen this problem. On the one hand, there is the simple fact that we are not victims of it. On the other hand, there is the more complex fact that we can generally surround ourselves with other white people, so it is understandable that we will not see race as an “issue” at Drake. However, just because I don’t see this issue personally on a daily basis does not mean that it is not a real issue. Now, when numerous students of color are taking time to speak out about their experiences and concerns, it seems odd to pronounce that the problems they discuss do not exist. I would like to encourage anyone reading this to attend upcoming events hosted by the Coalition of Black Students, or the Working Group for Infusing Global and Multicultural Understandings, if you are interested in learning more about perspectives on race at Drake.

  4. Cara Pratt April 24, 2012

    While I agree that ignorance leads to racism, I disagree that “the real solution to limiting racism…is treating every individual the same.” If by “the same” you mean “with kindness and respect,” then yes, absolutely.

    But treating everyone “the same” assumes we ARE all “the same” and all WISH to be treated “the same,” which is simply not true. Also who defines sameness?? Am I supposed to treat every Drake student like an upper-class white female from a two-parent home, like me? That sounds like forcing someone to assimilate to my perspective. We should all pride ourselves in being different because it establishes identity and reinforces curiosity. We can learn from our differences, and that is what Drake should and does encourage. Diversity is not drawing lines, it is finding commonalities and understanding different perspectives. You talk about differences like they are bad and divisive, but wouldn’t going to a school without people who challenge our beliefs and our perspectives be incredibly boring???

    Just because YOU don’t see racism doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In fact, it is incredibly easy for white students to claim racism doesn’t exist. I, for example, had no idea these types of things occurred on our campus until this very public and appalling incident, and after discussions with students who have been discriminated against. While I am disappointed this happened on our campus, I am glad that the story has been shared, because it has allowed me to get a small glimpse of what other people, specifically black students, experience at Drake. The reason why we might see this as an isolated incident is because stories of racism don’t always reach white ears. If a stranger has never shouted something at you because of how you look, sure, maybe this seems like isolated incident. But as most women and most racial minorities will tell you, these things happen pretty frequently. Try walking down 25th Street in a skirt as a woman any time of the day, and you will hear what I mean. Put yourself in a position where you are the racial minority. Visit Latin America as a white student and strangers will shout “gringo” at you at least twice a day. Otherwise, if you have never actually been a minority, don’t expect to know how it feels and don’t assume discrimination doesn’t happen. Be curious, ask questions, talk to students who are different from you, educate yourself.


    Also, the petition was not created by a social media class – it was created by the Working Group for Infusing Global and Multicultural Understandings. I encourage you to get involved with the group as you are clearly passionate about this issue.

    1. Ben Levine May 5, 2012

      First, I meant treat everybody equally. No individual is the same and therefore if we treat each person with an equal amount of respect then race becomes irrelevant.

      Second, I don’t think differences are divisive and I don’t really understand how you got that impression. I’ve gained a whole lot of experience at Drake talking to other students who have different opinions on issues. If I would have gone to Liberty University, for instance, where only conservatives go, I wouldn’t have gotten those experiences.

      Third, I’ve been served last in an all-black neighborhood restaurant, have been called a Kyke, and experienced other incidents of discrimination that I won’t list here. No, I’m not a black student at a dominantly white university; however, I don’t need to be to understand the problem. Also, when you’re the one being discriminated against the problem is always going to seem larger because of feelings involved. That’s natural.

  5. Grady Reuler April 24, 2012

    Mr. Levine,

    Yes, you are right, racism will not just “disappear”, however this does not negate the importance and need for discussions about race on Drake’s campus. In one way, I am sympathetic to your reading of race relations. When you say “racism doesn’t exist,” you are correct, but that’s the point. Issues of race NEED to be discussed by the Drake community. Topics of race, diversity, and understanding need to be “over emphasized” because they are not given the attention they deserve. The recent diversity march was not undertaken to call attention to a “pretend” problem. Rather, it was to show that this campus stands against the discrimination of not only African Americans, but women, Native Americans, foreign exchange students, and anyone else who has been made to feel on the “outside”. The march was neither “knee Jerk” nor hasty, but well thought out and prepared to foster communication and exchange between students of all backgrounds. Through the activism of students and teachers the campus did unite and show solidarity for not only a local issue, but a national issue as well. Please understand that issues of diversity are very real, tangible, and visible. As student of Native American descent, I have always felt welcome on this campus, but I too, even as a student of color, have overlooked problems of diversity. It is upon all of our shoulders to understand, care, and be there for one another. I am not convinced that the campus, let alone the world, understands this obligation. I too am learning to be more open to other people. I do think, however, Mr. Levine, that you understand this matter very well and would invite you, as Ms. Pratt has suggested, to continue exploring what diversity and issues of race mean to you and this campus. Be curious, ask questions, and have an open heart.

    Thanks for your time,

    Grady Reuler

    Grady Reuler

  6. Cate O'Donnell April 24, 2012

    Ben,
    I think you have some very good points that you make based on your experiences as a white student on this campus, and I think your perspective is definitely not an uncommon one at Drake. I realize that you will likely get a lot of constructive criticism on this piece, so I won’t belabor the point, but I think you might benefit from really engaging with and reading the responses you have and will receive. You seem a little unsure about a lot of the facts in your article, and I also believe that you probably have not experienced these issues from the perspective of someone who is not white.

    One of the things that I personally grapple with at a Drake student is white privilege, and judging from your article, you do as well. White privilege is the privilege that allows me to go through life not only without harassment based on my race, but without even having to address the fact that others go through harassment (or insults, or colorblind racism, or subtle jokes) based on their race. It is not unsurprising, therefore that you feel (as many white people do) that racism does not occur on “our” campus. As a white student, this is a perspective I constantly have to combat by educating myself and hearing the experiences of Drake students who are not white and who do not have the luxury of being ignorant about racism on our campus(or anywhere else, for that matter). This is a famous piece about white privilege, and since this is clearly an issue that interests you, I strongly recommend you read it. http://www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf

    One last comment: of COURSE “we would be greatly mistaken to think racism will simply disappear.” This is nothing new- we have seen over and over again that unless someone (or a lot of someones) speak up and say something, nothing will change about any issue. Instead of questioning or belittling the experiences and perspectives of other Drake students, perhaps you should educate yourself about the issue of racism and become one of these someones.

  7. JK April 24, 2012

    Just for full disclosure, I’ll say I’m not a current student, but a very recent alumna who graduated last May and remains very closely connected with the Drake community.

    While I understand all the points being made in the comments, I personally would like to at least explain my interpretation of Mr. Levine’s piece. He doesn’t say he believes racism is nonexistent on Drake’s campus. He’s talking about whether it is a largely substantial problem. Obviously we should always strive to be accepting and to learn from our peers and embrace multicultural diversity. But taking one incident and letting it spur conversation is different than taking one incident and letting it define Drake University as an institution with a race problem. Is there really a race problem on the whole? I agree that there are individuals on campus that have issues. There always will be. (That’s not an excuse for anything, just a fact. Some idiots will always be idiots.)

    To my understanding (and I apologize to Mr. Levine if I’m wrongly interpreting your piece), what this writer is trying to say is that Drake promotes understanding, learning, acceptance of all individuals. We have classes whose sole purpose is to debate and discuss these issues–look at the honors classes every semester. I’ve taken classes focused on debating Darwin vs. evolution and sociology and historical debate classes in which race and class play a primary role in the discussion. We are an institution devoted to discussing and understanding these issues. Incidents happen, but the fact that we can have a calm, rational discussion and the fact that an entire campus of students responds passionately the way we have TO that one incident shows exactly that: we are committed to being a united campus that includes people of all different colors, classes, creeds, etc.

    I’m okay with the petition, but I do agree with this writer: maybe Drake doesn’t have a huge issue with race, and in the interest of upholding some of the integrity of our institution we can approach this incident as an issue that needs discussion within our entire society, not as an issue that should define and reflect on the whole of Drake.

    And yes, I’m white. I’m also a minority. I’m a female with a physical disability. I’ve faced discrimination at Drake (not comparing it to that faced by black students, just saying), and like I said before, there are some idiots. But as a whole, I’ve been welcomed, accepted and I’m proud of Drake for striving to uphold its mission statement.

    Maybe I’m just naiive, but I applaud Mr. Levine for writing something that he probably knew would draw some criticism.

  8. Shoshanah April 24, 2012

    With all due respect, Levine, I would not expect a white middle class male to notice widespread bias. Statistically, you are in the most privileged, favored class of people – both on campus and nationwide – so yes, I would assume to you this does not appear to be an issue. Forgive me if I do not think you are particularly well qualified to gauge the situation for minorities on campus.

    1. Ben Levine May 5, 2012

      Let’s recap: You just stereotyped me based on my skin color and socioeconomic level (which you simply guessed because in all reality you have no idea who I am) in order to tell me I am not qualified to discuss race relations on campus.

  9. Samantha Kenison April 24, 2012

    Part of the problem with white privilege is that you don’t often experience or witness racism yourself. There obviously is a problem on campus if someone felt as if they could speak for the whole campus and say “We don’t want you on our campus” to a group of black students. You said that “I still do not believe that this is representative of a greater problem with accepting diversity at Drake”. I believe that the fact that someone felt able to say such horrible things, and you feel that it isn’t a big deal, demonstrates just how prevalent the problem is. These supposed “isolated incidents” stem from a larger problem that make those incidents arise. The problem must be addressed by opening up dialogue about racism and race issues throughout campus.

    I once heard someone say something problematic about Latino-American people. When I tried addressing it, I was told that I couldn’t argue with the person about it because it was “just how he grew up”. Do you honestly think that that’s the best way to approach it? When we stay silent on issues like this, that is when people get the idea to shout rude things to other students. If that woman was hearing from her peers that black students ARE wanted on our campus, and that racist behavior isn’t accepted, then she wouldn’t have felt so able to shout those things from her window. She definitely wouldn’t have felt able to speak for campus as a whole. Dialogue is the only way to prevent these things from happening, it’s the only way to get people to look through a different perspective, and it’s the only way to open minds. That’s why being color-conscious is the only way to make change. It’s not enough to ignore race. That’s where you get the idea that racism isn’t a problem when it very obviously is for those who experience it. Color-consciousness causes people to ask questions and think.

    Maybe you should have asked questions and thought before claiming that racism isn’t a problem and that we shouldn’t talk about it. It’s clearly not a problem for you, but that does not mean it’s not a problem for others. For a final quote from your article, you said “Simply put, I have not seen this supposed “broad problem” that Drake has and I think I know why: It does not exist”. No, Ben. I am going to be very blunt here: the reason why you don’t see it as a problem is because you are white and unaware of your own privilege. It’s not logical to say that something doesn’t exist because you do not have your own anecdotal evidence to back it up. So please, listen to what the others have advised: listen to other experiences, open your mind and eyes, and try to learn about an issue before you publish about it in our paper.

  10. Ben Hoffman April 24, 2012

    Ah, racism. Here we go again. Although there are enough sides/beliefs on racism to create a Porygon, I’m going to narrow this issue down to two groups of people. The first group believes that racism is based solely on concrete instances of race. What I mean by this is that they only consider something racist when say one person acts out of racist feelings. The other group sees racism on a systematic level as well. To use the current events topic of Zimmerman and Martin: Group 1 might not see anything racist because Zimmerman is probably not racist, which is a fair claim. Group 2 would not call Zimmerman racist necessarily, but they would say that because of the societal representation of African-Americans, Zimmerman perceived Martin to be dangerous and so he followed him (they would assume that Zimmerman wouldn’t have followed a white person). Zimmerman then was an agent of a system of racism, rather than the racist, the sole person deserving blame.
    So Mr. Levine, to find racism we must allow ourselves to look past the simple acts of racism and dive into racism on a deep level, a critical level, where there are more sides to every story, but that’s fine because, as Jordan Brown would say: “Remember, there is always another side to what we know.”

  11. Katie Bell April 24, 2012

    As a white student at Drake, I, too found myself surprised when I heard about the race-related incident that occurred on the painted street a couple of weeks ago. I found that within moments, my surprise turned to a confusing mixture of sadness, frustration, and anger, and I found myself asking, “really?! Here?” But what I quickly realized after talking with fellow students, and attending the Senate meeting, as well as some CBS events including the march and fishbowl, was that the racial issues on Drake’s campus expand far beyond my limited conception as a white “knower” of racial discrimination in our current cultural context.

    I would like to first take the step to thank Ben for voicing his opinion, for while I most definitely do not agree with what was said in this column, I do believe that without honest conversation, we will go nowhere as a community and as a campus. However, I think we enter some very dangerous territory when we take the opportunity to speak on behalf of someone else, or for an experience that is not ours. When asking, “does Drake really have a substantial problem with racism?” and making claims such as, “I’m not convinced that it is as widespread as the recent uproar would make it seem,” the voices of those who do experience racism on a daily basis are suddenly delegitimized and erased as invalid. What does it take, then, to become “convinced” that a conversation about racism is relevant? Does severity of racial discrimination have to increase? Will we demand a report of every racial slur, epithet, or discriminatory action, that will then be labeled as “acceptable” at the determining power of white students? By assuming that Drake is overreacting to one incident suggests that that single experience, however insensitive, demeaning, or disheartening, does not “count,” as if that person is less entitled to a pleasant experience as an equal member to the Drake community as anyone else. I propose that we re-think how we are approaching this situation, acknowledging that the multiplicity of characteristics that make up what we call “diversity” (race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) are not neutral characteristics. We must realize that “we don’t know what we don’t know,” and instead of making assumptions about overreactions or legitimacy of claims, we would be much better served as a community if we talked to our classmates, friends, and neighbors who know the realities of racial difference in a way that perhaps a white student does not. To ignore the embeddedness of white privilege in today’s world is to live within a dangerously myopic and distorted view of ourselves and others.

    We must understand that when it comes to issues of racism, bigotry, and discrimination, we cannot isolate them, but rather we must understand that they are sentiments woven into a larger, cultural fabric that we indeed have the power to change as individuals and as a campus. Simply stating that “ignorance is part of the human condition” discredits our potential to become compassionate, accepting and understanding human beings, and I think we do a disservice to ourselves if we accept that mentality as truth. Thus, instead of being quick to discredit the experiences of many African American students on our campus (many of which go unrecorded, as part of the “everyday”), I would hope that we can turn up our ears, have a seat, and give listening a try. It is not until we begin to engage with our peers here at Drake in a way that does not make incorrect assumptions that we can begin to move past the issues of race. However, this article proves that the conversation is far from over.

  12. Emmanuel Smith April 24, 2012

    “Racism is the worst form of collectivism.” WHAT? The ideal form of collectivism is Communism, in which the concept of race doesn’t even exist. Collectivism gets to the interconnected nature of humanity, which in itself is incompatible with racist ideals. Have you ever read a book that wasn’t The Fountainhead?

    1. Ben Levine May 13, 2012

      No, I have never read any book other than The Fountainhead.

      While the “ideal form of collectivism” may be Communism as you say, I never mentioned the ideal form of collectivism. Rather, I mentioned the opposite. What I said is that racism is the worst form of collectivism. I was referring to the collectivist school of thought that preaches the subjugation of the individual to the group (which Communism indeed does). In this particular case, people look at racial groups to define individuals instead of looking at individuals themselves. That shouldn’t be too difficult for somebody like you to understand because, after all, you seem to talk down to me with the utmost ease.

      In response to your comment below, I never demonized people who stand against such racist actions. I simply said Drake does not have a widespread problem with racism. That is simply my “hopelessly unqualified” assessment. Now, I have to go read The Fountainhead. I can’t wait to see what happens…again.

  13. Emmanuel Smith April 24, 2012

    The big problem with your perspective here Ben, (and my problem is with your political views, not you as an individual) is that you demonize collective thinking, and in one paragraph blame racism on collectivism without any substantial explanation. After that, you passively accuse people of lying about being verbally abused, and then demonize the people who stand against such actions. You beg the question, perpetuate rumors to support your argumentation, and make outrageous statements about race when you are hopelessly unqualified. I hope to write a response to the perspective you offer here, and will share it with you should you be interested.

  14. Emmanuel Smith April 25, 2012

    Apologies for the last sentence of my first post. Frustration does not justify a cocky personal attack.

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