Over a month has passed since two University of Mississippi students chose to express their feelings of hatred and bigotry by defacing the bronze statue of James Meredith at the center of campus. There have been reactions to the incident from almost every segment of the university community. The administration has announced the creation of a new Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement. A number of professors and students have expressed their sadness and frustration, and leaders from the Greek community, of which the vandals were members, have issued statements denouncing the action.
Of course, all of these reactions should be expected. The university administration, facing a media backlash, has to make a good-faith effort to save face. Furthermore, the presidents of fraternities, already under scrutiny due to their recruitment processes, could not simply stand by and watch from the sidelines.
The important question is: What will the end result of all of these “condemnations” and “calls to action” be?
As a senior preparing to graduate in May, I certainly hope that this is the last time I will read about a racial incident involving the words “Ole Miss” or “Oxford, Miss.” I hope that when I tell my kids about the James Meredith statue incident, they will think it is as absurd as when my parents told me about anti-desegregation busing riots in Boston during the ‘70s.
However, I believe that there are two large barriers blocking the change that this community needs. The first is the belief that the way to overcome these issues is to simply “move on.” I have heard a number of people ask why we should not just ignore these events and choose not to give them any undue attention. Maybe if we just stop talking about racism, then racism will stop being an issue, right?
This sentiment is absolutely wrong. Racism is not an issue because people will not stop discussing it; racism is an issue (partly) because many people here in the South and elsewhere refuse to discuss it.
As an extreme example, we can take Germany. Germany’s constitution bans displaying the swastika, and it is illegal to deny that the Holocaust happened. Today you would be hard-pressed to find an anti-Semitic German. Germany has overcome its difficult past precisely because it did not try to ignore it.
The second barrier to change is the structure of social life at this university. As Professor Barbara Combs stated during the university Black History Month celebration, “physical integration is not social integration.” The reality is that there is a lack of social integration on this campus among students of different backgrounds.
In its current form, the Greek system at the university is one of the largest monoliths standing in the way of true social integration. Many fraternity members I have spoken with claim that the reason their membership is so homogenous is because nonwhite students do not actively take part in the recruitment process. If this is the case, then the leaders of those organizations need to ask themselves why that may be.
In previous weeks there have been a number of calls for change from those within the Greek system. In an article published last Friday, William Fowler, the president of Phi Delta Theta, listed creating a “culture that denounces intolerant words and actions” and “actively seek(ing) diversity of members throughout the Greek recruitment process” among his suggestions for Greek leadership. These are respectable goals. I guess we will have to wait and see if they are taken seriously.
Orion Wilcox is a senior economics major from Bay St. Louis.