A President's Reflections

Race and Class

Posted on March 1, 2009

I this weekend came across a wonderful HBO documentary about the integration of college football.  HBO reruns its documentaries and I’d recommend Breaking the Huddle: The Integration of College Football if you have a chance to see it.  There are wonderful accounts — some of them heartbreaking and others inspirational — of those first Black athletes to step onto university football fields in the South.

The footage of James Meredith stepping onto the  Old Miss campus (and sparking riots), of USC’s Sam Cunningham steamrolling over the all-white Alabama team led by Coach “Bear” Bryant, and Bubba Smith talking about being forced to play in the north because Texas universities would not play Black players is profound.  Ostensibly a sports story, the documentary does a nice job capturing the larger context of racism and the Civil Rights Movement.

I was also reminded that the struggle, often associated with the 60s, extended well into the 70s.  I grew up in the Boston area and was in high school when South Boston was torn asunder by the court mandated desegregation of the public schools.  The venom and hatred displayed on the front page of the Globe during that period were no less terrible than the images we associated with the deep South ten years before.  Stanley Forman’s famous photograph of the attack on Black lawyer Theodore Landsmark (now President of the Boston Architectural College) was taken in 1976 (http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/exhibits/pulitzer/photos/riot.jpg) and remains as shocking today as it was 33 years ago.

I attended Waltham high School (graduating in 1975) and there were only two Black students in our 900-student senior class, twin brothers.  We were friends and I thought about them today as I watched the HBO show.  It’s hard to rewind the clock, but I think I was pretty oblivious about their race.  They were from the nice end of town, their parents were professionals, and they were high achievers in the classroom and on the track.  One was president of our class.

I tended (and still tend) to see the world through the lens of class, growing up in the blue collar section of town with no college graduate in my family or in my neighborhood.  So I think if you had asked me then I would have told you I had much bigger hurdles to clear than my two friends, who were clearly destined for greatness (and they fulfilled that promise, by the way).  From a class perspective that was probably true.  There was no doubt that they would go to college (Dartmouth and Bowdoin, as it turned out) and, in contrast, it was a toss-up in my case and if I did go it would have to be an affordable state college.

But I am now so embarrassed at that notion.  What must it have been like to be Black in an all-white high school in the early seventies?  I can only wonder at the ways their race and racism must have shaped their worlds, what insults (intentional and not) they must have withstood.  I went into Boston with friends and never thought very much about where we strayed.  Straying into the wrong Boston neighborhood in the 1970s would have been extremely dangerous for them.

I looked at the world through the lens of class, but could they have looked at it through anything but the lens of race?  Who then had bigger hurdles to climb?  They did, by far, and I wish I had been a better friend to them than my apparent obliviousness or solipsism allowed.  Like the amazing athletes in the documentary, they were pioneers in the world in which they and I lived.  I like to think that if I sought them out today they would say “No, our race rarely came up and we thought of it no more than you did.”  I’m afraid that may have been very far from the truth.

Race and class are inexorably linked in America and remain so.  Travel through parts of Detroit, Philadelphia, and huge swaths of the South and you’ll see a kind of racial and economic apartheid that stacks the odds against escape and success impossibly high.   Much of America was shocked to see it so starkly unveiled when Katrina ravaged New Orleans.  We have such a long way to go.

Universities like ours can be an important part of the solution and we have to be more thoughtful and purposeful in our outreach to students and families of color.  I want us to more emphatically address diversity and while I know there are many kinds of diversity, for me the challenge remains working with those kids trapped in the place where race and class meet.  As an institution, we have a long way to go.

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