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Discriminating change

The struggles of being a minority after an historic election

Published: Friday, December 12, 2008

Updated: Sunday, February 14, 2010 23:02

Twenty-three years before America elected its first black president, Miami University students elected theirs.

Randi Thomas, Miami's director of Institutional Relations, was campaign manager for the winning candidate in the campus's historic election.

"When John (Cager) was elected, it was a matter of the best qualified candidate," Thomas said. "It wasn't really until after he was elected that people stopped and said, 'Wow.'"

Thomas went on to win his own bid for student body president in 1987, gaining 70 percent of the vote. In addition, he became homecoming king and Charter Day Ball king during his time at Miami.

Thomas said the first black student body president was Wells Didlick-an elected vice president who took over in 1951 when the president didn't return to campus.

The meaning of victory

Electing the first black president-either of the student body or the United States-may be a momentous occasion, but it doesn't provide a magic fix for minorities who still face struggles in everyday life.

"Clearly this is a momentous event," said Christine Taylor, associate vice president for institutional diversity at Miami. "But I think we need to be careful not to let the success of one speak to the success of the aggregate."

College Democrats co-President Aaron Turner said that despite the election of a black president, minorities nationwide still face the usual issues.

"On Jan. 20, the fact of the matter is a majority of African-American students are still taught in low-income communities by failing schools with poorly trained teachers-that reality stays the same," he said. "Teen pregnancy for African-Americans and Latinos is still going to be a lot higher than for white teenagers."

Turner said he doesn't think race is an issue to the extent it was decades ago.

"I feel like a vote is a very personal act to a lot of people, so that says something about where our country's at," he said. "Forty years ago, voting for a black man was unheard of. Twenty-five years ago, it was too taboo to say you're not voting for a black man. Now there's virtually no Bradley Effect. So I think that speaks volumes about where we are as a nation."

The increase in hate crimes around Election Day speaks to the reality minorities still face in the United States.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, reported a spike in hate crimes around the election. Reuters reported on white supremacist groups who said they have seen "a flood of interest from possible new members."

Incidents have also been reported at college campuses. At California Polytechnic State Institute, students were reprimanded for hanging a noose and Confederate flag outside their house as part of a Halloween display.

In Oxford, Taylor said a friend was at the Chase ATM uptown when someone drove by and yelled N*gger out of a car window.

On-campus, Taylor said she has heard of other incidents involving students writing discriminatory messages on boards in residence halls.

One faculty member who is part of the GLBT community said she was walking down the street about a week after the election when someone yelled a derogatory word at her out of a car window.

Miami's struggle

Some people refer to Miami as "J. Crew U." Students can be seen sporting Northface jackets, Ugg boots and the most recent trend in designer bags.

It's a challenge for the university to overcome that image and attract more students of minority on campus.

"(Miami) might be trying (to recruit minority students), but it's kind of hard when you're coming on a campus tour and you see Northfaces all around and people are staring at you like, 'Who's this guy,'" said Turner, who experienced the feeling himself as a black student.

Taylor said facilitating a relationship between students of different backgrounds is key on a campus where students come from privileged backgrounds and where people aren't that diverse.

"Privilege is good, but how do we leverage it for the common good," she said.

Miami junior Marissa Sims said apathy toward diversity issues on campus is worse than outright hatred.

"At least you could have a debate with people if they reacted when you brought up a subject, but right now no one cares," she said via e-mail. "Partially because they do not see the discrimination that is happening or think it matters-like white students who use the N-word and think it's OK or the incessant use of words like f*g and gay."

Sims said she's witnessed or heard about discrimination on campus.

"Last year, we brought two performers who were open lesbians to Miami for Spectrum's awareness week," she said. "They were uptown at night with some students, a few of which were African-American, and a group of drunk guys walking behind them said, 'I've never seen this much diversity at Miami: N*ggers, f*gs and d*kes!'"

However, some students believe the issue of diversity is overemphasized by the university.

Miami senior Doug Haynes said students can easily find diversity if they look beyond their inner circle of friends.

"I realize there's a problem on this campus of groups of students who don't mix with the majority population, but since I mix with the majority population-if you call it that, because to me, its just other Miami students-I don't get that sense (of a lack of diversity) at all," he said. "I don't think, 'Oh crap, I haven't seen another black person walk by in a while.'"

Haynes said he sometimes wonders what the university is trying to accomplish in its talk of diversity. He said if the university's goal is to get students to interact, they are failing miserably.

However, Haynes said racism is not the norm at Miami-"it's quite the opposite." He said he's observed that students are surprised to hear about racist actions.

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