Equal but Separate

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Equal but Separate


The article posted on the University of Illinois alumni Magazine dealing with the racial separation on the U of I campus. As the article states that the laws change but the people don't. Unless the change how they really view the world.

Article Text: Fifty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, whites and blacks on campus seem to 'get along without getting along'

By Kevin Davis

Editor's Note:
Since the beginning of the academic year, the University of Illinois has held a series of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed racial segregation in the nation's public schools. In light of the anniversary of this landmark Supreme Court case, Illinois Alumni sought to assess the status of black and white relations on campus by talking with students present and past. We recognize that race relations have come to mean much more than how blacks and whites get along, and encompass the relationships among students of various racial and ethnic cultures from around the world, each with their own unique experiences, histories and sets of concerns.
At the beginning of the fall semester, incoming students Laura and Lisa were assigned to share a dorm room at the Florida Avenue Residence Hall. The pre-med biology majors had never met before and soon realized that this chance living arrangement would become an exercise in racial integration.
Lisa is black and comes from the Uptown neighborhood in Chicago. Laura is Caucasian, from the mostly white Chicago suburb of Lombard. Despite having shared close quarters for months, the young women's lives and interests remain worlds apart.
"Our cultures are so different," says Laura. "It places some barriers between us."
One clear difference is their interest in racial matters. On Lisa's dorm room shelf is a copy of "Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision." Chancellor Nancy Cantor urged every student entering the University in 2003 to read it as part of the University's commemoration of the historic school integration case.
"I wanted to be part of the discussion they were having on campus about it," says Lisa, a junior transfer student. "I want to participate in as many things as I can. It's important."
Laura, a freshman, was less inclined. "They gave out free copies to everyone in the building," she says. "I didn't take one. I felt it was being thrown in my face. I think it was too pushy."
She has declined to participate in other events, as well. "It's getting exhausting," Laura says. "I just don't have the time. ... I'm not prejudiced, and I don't hate anyone."
While Laura and Lisa may not end up as best friends, they acknowledge and understand their differences. Their relationship is like that of many blacks and whites on campus — friendly and civil but at a distance.
"We're different," Lisa says, "but we're cool about it."
"I have my friends," Laura says, "and she has hers."
Same campus, different perspectives
At a time when more blacks are enrolled at the University than ever, black and white students continue to live in separate worlds, much as they do outside the world of academics.
"The culture on campus is pretty much a reflection of the society from which the students come," says Leonard Steinhorn, a communications professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and an expert in race relations. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that campuses can't be an oasis to try to counteract that culture."
Steinhorn, who co-authored "By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race," writes of a "striking contrast between our very public ideal of a racially integrated America and the daily, grinding reality of a society deeply divided by race."
But with higher education come higher expectations and greater opportunities to break down those divisions. "On campuses today, they're teaching students the real meaning of diversity in this world and asking them to look beyond their core assumptions," Stein-horn says. "At least the campus has done the job in trying to mitigate the barriers we see in the rest of society."
At the University of Illinois, administrators, professors and students have worked hard to create a culture of greater understanding and a deeper thinking about race relations through classes, lectures and events like the Brown v. Board commemoration.
Interviews and surveys suggest that black students do not perceive the University as a racially hostile place, yet feel that pockets of racist attitudes and behavior continue to exist beneath the surface of a campus where whites make up 67.6 percent of the undergraduate population and blacks 7.5 percent (based on fall 2003 enrollment figures).
As a group, blacks have expressed the least satisfaction with the state of race relations compared to other minorities, according to senior survey results from last year. Whites, on the other hand, generally believe that race relations are going pretty well.
Blatant acts of racism and hate crimes are rare but do surface from time to time. Officially, there was only one hate crime reported to University police in the past three years.
Rather than a racially charged campus, there appears to be an atmosphere of polite tolerance. Students of different color accept each other but often cut themselves short from developing deeper relationships, choosing instead to associate with their own racial and ethnic groups.

Patricia Wierzbicki and Daniel Williams
Walk around campus today, and you see people of color everywhere - darting across the Quad from class to class, hanging out in the Illini Union, in the residence halls, at the fast food restaurants along Green Street. But it is apparent that people with similar skin color tend to stick together.
Moises Jerez, MS '03 ALS, is a 22-year-old black graduate student in sports management. He's from the West Side of Chicago. He knew before coming to the University that he would feel different as a black man on campus.
He sees a campus in which the races largely ignore one another. "Overall, I don't see any communication between whites and blacks," Jerez says. "There are no problems because there is no communication. Blacks stick to themselves, and so do the whites. There's hardly ever been a clash between the two in the six years I've been here. I guess that means that they get along without getting along."
Like many black students, Jerez tends to spend time outside the classroom with those like himself. He leads a group called House Arrest II Dance Team, hosting shows and performing at parties, most of which are attended by blacks. "We try to reach out to other people, but it's not something I guess they're interested in," he says. "But a lot of my African-American friends aren't hanging out with white people, either."
'It's almost like a subculture'
The Florida Avenue Residence Hall has a reputation among students as the "black dorm" because of the large population of blacks living there, many by choice. This past fall, blacks made up 20.2 percent of the population, higher than any other residence hall. (Overall, blacks represented 11.5 percent of the residence hall population.)
Once a week, FAR hosts a soul food night in the cafeteria, with a DJ spinning music on a booming sound system. While black students from dorms around the campus congregate at the meal, white students tend to stay away.
"There's not a white person in the place," says Laura. "Me and my friends usually go somewhere else for dinner. "It's really uncomfortable and really loud."
Her roommate, Lisa, likes soul food night. She says white students who venture in often appear ill at ease in the presence of so many blacks. "Some of them were not exposed to this much diversity before," she says. "They come here, and they feel uncomfortable. But that's [what] it's like to be diverse, so get used to it."
Events like this affirm Laura's opinion that blacks cling together, making it more difficult to get to know them. "They pride themselves by saying they want to be equal, but they still choose to have their own clubs and have their own homecoming," says Laura, whose career plans led her to leave campus after her first semester. "They choose to separate themselves."
Senior Daniel Williams recognizes differences exist between white and black cultures but urges students to embrace new experiences. A political science major with a focus on racial and ethnic politics, Williams, who is black, has made deep friendships on campus with men and women of many ethnic groups.
"You have to have a willingness to accept and to be curious about [someone] as a person — race included," says Williams. "[People] don't become friends on the basis [that] they're of two different races; they're friends because of commonalities."
Williams' best friend, a white UI student named Patricia Wierzbicki, "didn't see me as different," he says. "She didn't make assumptions like I was poor, from the projects, with no father. ... She looked at me as a regular person." He says preconceptions prevent people from reaching out to different racial groups.


Kevin Davis


Illinois Alumni Magazine


March/April 2004

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Kevin Davis, “Equal but Separate ,” eBlack Champaign-Urbana, accessed November 21, 2019, http://eblackcu.net/portal/items/show/263.

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