ATO and Phi Beta Sigma host historic forum at UGA
But today’s students are a lot more likely to judge each other on quality, not color, say both black and white scholars.
UGA still has a predominantly white student body, even though the number of blacks and other minority students has climbed dramatically in the past five years.
“I’m always conscious of being black,” said second-year student Shandrea Hardeman.
And sometimes, when she sees students cross to the other side of the street to avoid her, she thinks it’s probably because she’s black. But those incidents are rare, and when students do encounter racism these days, it’s more hidden, they say.
“It’s not to the point where it makes you uncomfortable. It’s not like you’ve got the KKK marching on campus. I haven’t been in a situation where I was racially discriminated upon,” said Isis Men-Nefer, a senior majoring in management and sports management who also is the vice president of the UGA Black Affairs Council.
“I have never experienced blatant, hateful racism on campus,” said Josh Delaney, president of the university’s Black Student Union.
But Delaney and other black students still feel the sting of racism.
“If I’m walking down the street and someone passes by and moves way out of my way, I tend to think it’s because I’m black,” Hardeman said.
“Back a few years ago, racism was very apparent. It was out in the open and easy to identify when it happened,” said UGA graduate Will Warren, an alumni member of historically black Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.
“Now, it’s really under the rug, hard to identify, more subjective,” said Warren, now a graduate adviser to the fraternity.
Even though legal segregation is gone, other kinds of segregation and discrimination remain, students said.
“There’s different races here, but everybody stays within their same groups, for the most part,” said UGA library worker and recent UGA graduate Ambre Reed.
“There’s always seemed to be somewhat of a divide at the University of Georgia between, this is what the white students do and this what the black students do, and it was kind of an unspoken thing,” said Warren, who is white. “But why is it that way, and should it be that way in 2010?”
Black students still can feel shut out, said Rodd Cargill, vice president of the UGA Phi Beta Sigma chapter.
But students are not segregating themselves because of outright racism, he said.
“People want to fall into their comfort zone, and not really give people a fair chance. It’s both sides,” he said.
Even when black students are invited to join majority-white groups, minority students may wonder why.
“It feels sometimes like a token. You feel like they want to reach a certain quota. But I don’t think it’s a conscious thing,” said junior LeMona Wyatt, a vice president of the Black Student Union.
Greek organizations are among the most segregated of UGA groups, but last month two fraternities took what may be a historic step toward more integration at UGA, holding an open forum to talk about race relations.
Cargill helped organize the forum, co-sponsored by the UGA Zeta Nu chapter of Phi Beta Sigma and a white fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega.
UGA administrators have staged many forums on race relations, but this one was different. It was student-generated, and unlike most such forums, the students who came didn’t belong to just one race.
“We have a lot of diversity events, but they’re more geared toward minorities,” Reed said.
“You end up talking to a bunch of black people about being black,” Hardeman said.
More than 300 students – many of them white – packed a room in the Miller Learning Center for the Jan. 26 forum. Dozens voiced their opinions.
“It was almost historical,” Min-Nefer said. “It was a proud moment.”
Students afterward said the forum demonstrated that race still is a dividing issue on campus.
“I hope it invited students to reach out into the community and get outside of their comfort zones,” said John David Williams, an Alpha Tau Omega member who helped plan the discussion.
The big meeting also gave hope to some of the same students who say problems still exist.
“To have a mixed crowd (talking about race) without any upheaval, that is amazing. People don’t have that hatred that used to be in people’s hearts,” Min-Nefer said.
“I feel like our generation is a little bit different from previous generations,” Hardeman agreed. “There’s a different climate.”
Mary Frances Early, one of UGA’s first black students in the early 1960s, also sees hope in today’s students.
“Students today accept each other more on an equal basis, certainly much more than what was happening when I was down there,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten rid of racism, and that can be from either side. But the general tenor of the times has changed, and more students judge each other by their character rather than the color of their skins.”