Goodbye Columbus, and all that

May 23, 1999|By Paul Delaney

IN THE old days of sincere and earnest, but ultimately naive, attempts to crack racism, when the issues were black and white and seemed clearer, when the good guys were in the North and the bad white guys in the South, I was majoring in journalism at Ohio State University.

I recall those days and those efforts in light of the state of race relations today and 40 years after the Supreme Court decision striking down officially segregated public schools, the subsequent furor over desegregation, job bias and housing discrimination.

Back then, as a result of that ruling, the nation's attitude was upbeat, the search for lasting solutions sincere as we were convinced America's racial Eden was imminent. Who would have thought that in 1999, we would be retracing some of the very same ground in the battle against racism?

We never anticipated that the resistance would be so fierce; we knew it was so in the South, but did not consider that the North would be just as tough. That was our naivete.

Preventive measures

At Ohio State in the 1950s, the school officials thought they had the right policies in place to prevent forever discrimination against blacks in admissions and campus housing. For example, the state legislature did away with requirements that photos be submitted with applications, along with questions about race, ethnicity and religion.

The policies did not work because white dorm counselors found ways around them. When white students ended up in rooms with black students, counselors sneakily asked the white students if they preferred another room. My white roommate-designate, Ron Kennedy, told the counselor he had no problem with the arrangement. Counselors, it turned out, were matching names: Delaney-Kennedy, both must be Irish: Schumaker-Levine, Jewish.

Most of us did not understand the damage done by such evil devices and duplicity until years later, as racial feelings turned extremely bitter as an assault on racism was met with stiff, often rancorous opposition. As Jesse Jackson scolded the nation about busing to integrate schools, "It's not the bus, it's us."

I am reminded about the poor state of racial healing whenever there is a new controversy over affirmative action or diversity, such as the battle going on at the University of Michigan or the Supreme Court ruling the other day against attempts to end the political isolation of many blacks by carving out districts that provide more representation. It's not the gerrymandering, it's us.

Back in my days at Ohio State, it was instructive that administrators did not mind that black students designated certain areas of the student union for themselves.

Black lounges

A room in the basement became the "ebony lounge" to us. At Michigan State, the area was called "the black belt" and similar appellations existed at other Big Ten colleges, as they do today at many institutions across the country.

In addition, most black students avoided the main, university-sponsored homecoming dance until Marlene Owens, daughter of track legend Jesse Owens became the first black homecoming queen in 1961.

In fact, black students held their own "homecoming" and other party functions mainly at the Masonic Lodge on the East Side of Columbus. I recall this because there seems to be deep concern today that black students, therefore, are racist for segregating themselves.

The act goes on nowadays for the same reason it happened back then: Non-white students do not feel accepted as real partners with whites on campus; white traditions dominate; their social and political organizations, Greeks in particular, remain solidly segregated. These are facts those protesting black self-segregation ignobly and deliberately elect to ignore.

Decades of those and worse practices have taken such a toll on blacks it is a wonder there are still integrationists among us. All that segregating and discriminating, all those hurtful feelings and resentment did not make us anti-white. Ironically, what made it more difficult for us was that some of the culprits were immigrants or children of immigrants who fled Europe to escape fascism and racism, the same reasons blacks fled the South.

Despite our "ebony lounges" and "black belts", my generation went on to work with, deal with, associate with whites. We became neighbors, colleagues and friends of whites, just as surely today's generation will. Black self-segregation is not as long-lasting nor as devastating as the pain and suffering and rejection we historically faced from white Americans.

Some universities are trying to change that history, that disconnect from their African-American graduates. Syracuse University does it with an annual "Coming Home" weekend, led by black alums, where graduates are sought out and welcomed back.

Wealthy donors

I find it disturbing that other schools have not emulated that approach, an indication they do not really care about a group that does not have, indeed, has not been allowed to obtain, the wealth to donate $100 million as Michael Bloomberg recently did to Johns Hopkins University. We certainly would like to.

From the passion of Frederick Douglass, the dire warnings of W.E.B. DuBois, the anger of James Baldwin to the preachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and the continuing optimism of a people still disappointed with the fruits of the dream, the observation of historian Andrew Hacker in the title of his book rings true:

"Two Nations, Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal."

Paul Delaney is co-director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University in Washington.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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