More than 100 people filled the Michigan League ballroom Monday night to hear author Lawrence C. Ross discuss research highlighted in his latest book “Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses.”
The event aimed to both discuss Ross’ research and prompt audience members to reflect on how his findings regarding race relations on college campuses apply to the University of Michigan, organizers said.
Courtney Monroe, council adviser for the Office of Greek Life, planned the event along with the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies. Members of the Panhellenic Council also attended and lead a Q&A session after the event.
The event began with libations offered by Prof. Elizabeth James from the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, which are given as a sign of respect and acknowledgment for those who have passed. During the event, Monroe said she asked James to deliver these libations in the spirit of Black History Month, saying it was important to peacefully reflect and pay homage to those who made it possible for everyone to be at the lecture and at the University.
Ross began his lecture by reciting an infamous chant from the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon that made national headlines in 2014. A video showed members of the fraternity chanting “they would never let a n****r in SAE.”
Ross said he believes the way administrators at the University of Oklahoma handled the issue demonstrates his theory “Three Izes Equal A Miss.” The theory suggests that when large institutions are accused of systemic racism they individualize, minimize and trivialize the issue.
Before Ross took the stage, Monroe acknowledged that reflecting on race relations at the University would be a difficult conversation to have for some students.
Several incidents have drawn attention to racism at the University in past years. In 2013, the University's chapter of Theta Xi planned a “Hood Ratchet” themed party, which resulted in the fraternity’s suspension. Also in 2013, a twitter campaign driven by the #BBUM inspired social media users to share their experiences with race and racism on campus.
“We accept this challenge with the understanding that Michigan has always been a place where we explore the realities that make us uncomfortable,” Monroe said.
Ross’ research has focused on four areas of campus racism; the legacy of segregation, campus symbolism, the Inter-Fraternal and Panhellenic Council and racial microaggressions.
Though Ross divides his book into four areas of racism, he said he believes each are interconnected and all create a sense of ostracism for students of color.
Ross acknowledged that while the University’s campus may not have blatant symbols of racism, many campuses throughout the country do, citing examples ranging from buildings to football stadiums named in honor of racist figures.
He noted in particular a building at Clemson University built and named after Benjamin Tillman, a 19th-century governor of South Carolina who is known to have espoused racist views.
“When you still have buildings to this day like Tillman’s buildings that still stand, typically that building is spray painted almost every single day because they are basically saying we need to get rid of this,” he said. “Because what you are basically telling them is not only do you not belong there but these buildings, these honors reflect the values of the University.”
Ross is a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and an advocate for Greek life, but said he discovered in his research that Interfraternal Council and Panhellenic organizations have been the source of the most consistent instances of racism on college campuses over the past 40 years.
Many IFC and Panhellenic members do not actually know what is happening in their communities, he added, so they cannot adequately address issues with race relations.
“This lecture is called ‘Know Better, Do Better’ and unfortunately what typically happens, my IFC and Panhel friends do not actually know what’s happening, so they can not do better, and so we see the exact same thing,” he said.
The final area of racism Ross discussed were racial microaggressions, which he referred to as “A Four Year Plan to Drive Black Students Completely Crazy.” Ross said he believes racial microaggressions are the hardest to translate to those who do not personally experience them.
“Because people always say, ‘Well you know you talk about racial microaggressions how bad can they be?’ ” he said.
Ross concluded his lecture by saying that anyone, regardless of skin color, can fight for racial justice. He encouraged audience members to learn to acknowledge racism in their homes and communities.
“Get out of your comfort zone when it comes to your place in racism,” he said. “A lot of times when we come to college we think we are the enlightened ones.”
In an interview after the event, LSA freshman Alexandrea Somers said she was shocked by the findings of Ross’ research.
“I am a first-year student, so this was really enlightening to show that there are so many institutions that come into the college experience and those do shape and mold the presence of race on campus,” she said.
Another student, LSA freshman Salwan Butrus, said he attended the event because of an interest in the topic.
“It has always been an interest of mine, racism on campus, especially related to Greek life,” he said.