A look at racial diversity on the Square

Posted on Apr 22 2014 - 5:51am by Miriam Cresswell

The Square is seen earlier this year. Photo: Alex Edwards, The Daily Mississippian.

Editor’s Note: This story originally aired as a news package on the April 21 broadcast of NewsWatch 99. 

Brimming with visitors, students and locals, the Square is undoubtedly an Oxford trademark.

“It’s kept a lot of its historical character,” Mayor Pat Patterson said. “I think it has a pretty unique blend of restaurants and bars and retailers.”

But this diverse offering of restaurants and retailers might not be reflected in the people who frequent the Square.

According to a recent census report, the city of Oxford is roughly 70 percent Caucasian and 20 percent African-American. This means that for every 10 people in Oxford, around two are African-American; but do these numbers translate to the Square?

NewsWatch reporters Miriam Cresswell and Anna Beth Higginbotham took a mock census to find out. For a period of two hours, the reporters set up a camera on the Square. During this time frame, around one out of every 10 people was African-American, which doesn’t accurately reflect Oxford’s population.

Patterson said this lack of diversity comes down to economics.

“It’s a market-driven thing,” Patterson said. “If there were Dollar Generals and Family Dollars out there, you’d have a different demographic.”

Dr. Charles Ross, The University of Mississippi’s director of African American studies, believes the Square is a lot like the Grove.

“I think that many of the individuals are at a very high level socioeconomically, and I don’t know if there’s enough African-Americans that are in the kind of middle class that feel comfortable enough to come to the Square,” Ross said.

However, when asked if income plays into the Square’s lack of diversity, senior theatre arts major Jeffery Peavy was quick to disagree.

“I personally feel that’s one of those things where if you started to get into social class, it’d be very derogatory to people of color,” Peavy said. “It’s not that I don’t have enough money to be on the Square. It’s just like nothing is marketed towards my interest.”

Senior journalism major Bracey Harris visits the Square often, but she understands Peavy’s viewpoint.

“When you have something that seems to be a majority of one group, it can send the message, maybe it’s not intentional, that other groups aren’t welcome or maybe this isn’t a thing for other groups,” Harris said.

On March 4, Oxford’s Board of Aldermen passed a resolution confirming the city’s commitment to diversity. This resolution, which went unopposed, aims to increase tolerance and acceptance and foster a welcoming environment.

However, when asked whether Oxford should do more to encourage diversity on the Square, Patterson said he felt the media was trying to make an issue out of a problem that doesn’t exist.

“There’s a big diversity push right now that I think for the most part is silly and unfounded and asinine,” Patterson said.

John Adams, owner of S & J Art Gallery, the Square’s only African-American-owned business, said it’s all a matter of perception.

“The reason they’re probably feeling unwelcome is because they don’t give the opportunity to really see and come downtown more than once,” Adams said. “If you notice, when you walk around the Square, if you walk downtown, it doesn’t matter who you see. You speak to them. They speak back.”

Likewise, Corbin Evans, owner of the Square’s newest business, Oxford Canteen, said he hasn’t sensed any exclusivity. In his opinion, all are welcome.

“We opened the business to feed people who like good food, no idea who would come,” Evans said. “I’d like to have more customers. Doesn’t really matter who they are.”

Still, Harris said the lack of diversity shouldn’t be ignored.

“I guess it’s not exactly one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century or anything, but I think it’s maybe worth having a discussion in the Chamber of Commerce,” Harris said.

After all, perceptions of diversity on the Square are a matter of opinion, and in a town with Oxford’s history, the conversation will likely continue.

– Miriam Cresswell