The Way We Live Now


June 10, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles -- Across the UCLA campus from the Chican hunger strike, a student named Carlos Leon walked past the Sigma Nu fraternity house and thought he saw people dressed as Indians. He did. The fraternity was having a Boston Tea Party theme-party.

The university, which cannot afford to provide enough classes to allow most students to graduate in four years, has launched an investigation to determine whether the party ''reinforced group stereotypes'' -- the thought being that white men disguising themselves as Indians 220 years ago might be offensive to today's Native Americans.

Mr. Leon went back to the Sigma Nu house that night with a video camera and, peeking in through windows, caught the fraternity boys in the act of wearing feathers and throwing make-believe tea into make-believe Boston Harbor. The Campus and Student Life Office is expected to rule this week on whether the theme violated the stereotyping regulation.

Sigma Nu's defense is that it has held the party for 50 years, calling it a ''Cowboys and Indians'' party until five years ago when there were worries about the stereotypical resonance of that theme.

It is amazing to me how people smart enough to run colleges get themselves into situations like this. And UCLA, where I was a Regents Professor last year, seems to be routinely mired in several of them at once. The big one is the hunger strike by a professor and a handful of students demanding a Chicano/a Studies Department instead of the interdisciplinary Chicano/a degree program instituted in 1969.

A Chicano, according to Webster's Collegiate, is an American of Mexican descent. In official California language, the term ''Chicano/a'' is used because in Spanish the masculine ends in ''o,'' the feminine in ''a.'' My own feeling is that getting over and beyond ''descent'' is exactly what America is about, so I'm not big on hyphenation or much of anything else that tends to divide rather than unite Americans. A Chicano, by my definition, is an American, heir to the Boston Tea Party.

But my own ideas are a diversion -- on diversity. And I don't know much about the kind of campus and faculty politics that whirl around words such as ''department'' and ''interdisciplinary.'' The point I would like to make is that university presidents and chancellors need a staff assistant with a title something like ''politician in residence.'' They could use retired or worn-out old hacks -- there should be a lot of them because of term limits in the California legislature -- to tell them that it is insane to stand by reciting policy while someone with a gripe begins a hunger strike on your front lawn in full view of television cameras.

When demonstrations were a lot less gentle than this one, back in the early 1970s, I asked a friend named Paul Bragdon, a deputy mayor of New York who became president of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, how tough it was handling such things as the student occupation of his office. ''Not as rough as City Hall,'' he said and laughed.

Whatever the issues involving Chicano/a studies -- a major chosen by 30 or so of UCLA's 40,000 students -- the chancellor, Charles Young, lost this confrontation the moment the first tent went up, followed by the first poster, the first groupie, the first camera, the first Latino/a politician, Cesar Chavez's son, and, on Sunday, the first thousand marchers.

Now the chancellor is surrounded, figuratively, by the six people, one of them a 16-year-old high school student, who began fasting two weeks ago and say they are willing to die for a department. The men who dressed as Indians to protest the British taxes at the Boston Tea Party in 1773 were willing only to go to jail for their version of freedom.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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