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Race is a massive issue in AA

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Branislav Radeljic

Branislav Radeljic

I arrived to Ann Arbor in mid-January 2014 as a faculty fellow at the Michigan branch of the Telluride Association, hosted by the University of Michigan’s Department of History. Now, as I prepare to leave, there are a couple of things that will undoubtedly dominate my encounters with friends and colleagues back in the U.K. interested in hearing about my visit.

In the very beginning, given the unexpected harshness of the winter, I opted to spend most of my time indoors, either at one of the university’s great libraries or at the Telluride House on Washtenaw Avenue. However, as soon as some sunny moments chose to pay us a visit, I decided to get acquainted with the area. Indeed, walking around, meeting random people and listening to different local issues have become an experience difficult to forget, as these experiences amended my preconceived notions about Ann Arbor.

Race is a massive issue in Ann Arbor, my interlocutors kept saying. So, as it happened, one of my first nights out was to go to a talk by Melissa Harris-Perry, an excellent speaker I somehow never heard of before. Although Rackham Auditorium was almost full, the people who should have been there were missing; while the black community was well aware of the concerns and applauded the presented arguments and great messages, the white community was actually somewhere else besides the auditorium.

Soon after, I went to another gathering as a part of U-M’s Lunch Series for Men of Color. Although significantly smaller in size, the composition of the group was again disappointing: I was the only white attendee. 

My experience at these two disparate events assured me that black and white students generally tend not to mix or try to address one another’s position, representation and possible opportunities within society. Accordingly, the conundrum that embedded itself in my mind is: Despite America’s perception as welcoming and ready to accommodate immigrants of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, why has America failed to adequately address its own race-related issues and questions?

People fail to approach the question of race and ethnicity for all sorts of reasons. Often, they are simply not aware of them, as they live in their own bubble, uninterested in the particulars of other people’s lives or nearby neighborhoods. Also, it is much more entertaining to spend hours checking out and commenting on photos of a newly established Facebook friend, than thinking of how to interact with a black classmate.

One of U-M’s Law School students told me that his white colleagues are quite surprised when they hear him elaborate on court cases. Another student pointed out that he is often asked which sport he plays, as there is a general idea that black students secure access to universities and, more relevantly, funding, because they play sports and not because they can also be as smart as some other, nonblack counterparts.

Even more worrisome, a number of students maintained that some U-M departments are more open toward diversity than others, regarding both students and faculty. 

Needless to say, the list of examples of discrimination is long. At the same time, whenever I tried to start a conversation about the aforementioned aspects with non-blacks, although they were ready to acknowledge the existence of divisions and serious problems, their readiness to debate possible solutions seemed underdeveloped.

Affirmative action — regardless of whether it is based on race or what could possibly be of even greater benefit, class — was not embraced as an option at any point. If properly implemented, this kind of action could progress to the extent that the privileged would start facing more competition and therefore feel threatened. And it is exactly this aspect that can explain the whole stagnation and high poverty rates across the U.S. 

While American leadership does an excellent job supporting initiatives and policies aimed at reducing poverty abroad, it deliberately avoids doing much at home. It is not enough to have a black president, as (s)he will always be surrounded by an exclusive and carefully selected white elite capable of controlling her/his overall performance and, in fact, dominating decision-making processes. 

With this in mind, the question of education and therefore empowerment of someone who could rightly gain access to resources and businesses seems redundant. 

All this, however, does not mean that the black minority should give up. Not at all. Given that any substantial change will hardly be promoted by the ruling elites, it seems that efforts rest with the black community itself. 

There is no reason why there should not be more blogs, open invitations to take part in forums and public lectures, well-argued published material or any other awareness-raising strategies. In the end, the U.S. does not have a problem with freedom of speech and criticism, does it? 

Although I am about to leave the U.S., I hope to be back at some point soon as a visiting scholar. Thinking of it in terms of my permanent address is a dilemma I am quite struggling with.  

The author, Branislav Radeljic, is associate professor of international politics at the University of East London. Background (from The Ann, not the author): The Supreme Court ruled last month that Michigan voters had the right to change the state constitution in 2006 to prohibit public colleges and universities from considering race in admissions decisions. In other words, the court OK’d the ban on affirmative action.

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