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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

When Does Exclusive Cross the Line to Racist?

June 04, 2005|Bill Stamps | Bill Stamps is a retired L.A. County probation officer.

It is graduation season again. Last month, my wife and I happily participated in this privilege by observing our last child graduate from one of California's state universities.

Because our daughter is African American, we had the dubious honor of attending two ceremonies -- one for African Americans only, and then the next day, one for the general population of graduates. This was our third child to graduate from college, and all three universities -- two in California and one in Washington -- had these twin exercises.

Personally, I no longer see the need for two graduation ceremonies for the same individuals. I am not so naive that I do not know the original purpose of these "extra" affairs, but I feel that their usefulness has expired. To some, it is questionable if they were ever necessary.

During the civil rights era of the 1960s and early 1970s, many minority educators felt these special programs were needed for the morale and well-being of many minority students. Forty years ago, there was a belief in some minority communities that minorities were totally neglected and often not treated fairly in white-dominated colleges and universities. There was a strong belief that school administrators could not care less if these students passed, failed or graduated. Consequently, ethnic specific programs and activities were instituted to make college life more appealing to minority students.

These graduation ceremonies were generally smaller in size and designed to publicly recognize minority students for their academic achievements and to give these students an added sense of pride, importance and belonging -- something that may have been absent from the general graduation exercise. In the black community, it was an extension of the "I'm black and I'm proud" theme.

However, many changes have occurred in our universities. Minority students are not only represented in much higher numbers on campuses, they also are much more involved in college life and student activities.

Further, minority students are now publicly acknowledged for their accomplishments at graduations like other students. At the African American graduation ceremony I recently attended, the young man acknowledged as "Man of the Year" also received this award in the general graduation exercise.

Not only are these "special" ceremonies obsolete, they are divisive. They promote further separatism and segregation. Should white students have their own private graduation exercise? I don't think most people would appreciate that. Minorities would be the first to label it racist. Would we like to terminate the general graduation programs and let every group have a private ceremony? I don't think that we want this either.

In the general public graduation exercise my wife and I attended, the black and Latino students wore special sashes, which they had received at "their" ceremonies. Could we handle whites having their own "sashes"? The days of "white only" have ended. Great! However, shouldn't the same be true for "black only," "Latino only," "Asian only," etc.?

When we speak of a nation striving for "integration" and "diversity," what does this mean? Are these terms only to apply to some groups and not to others? As we seek freedom and become freer, we segregate more and become more exclusive.

At the African American-only graduation exercise, one of the speakers, after charging the students to be successful in life, concluded by saying, "After all, we are not the racists; they are." I would like to know who "they" are and who "we" are. I think "we" have become "they."

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