Op-Ed: A new kind of racial silence

Thursday, October 6, 2016 - 6:01pm

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As much as we like to pretend racism has disappeared with a few stirs of the U.S. melting pot, discrimination keeps bubbling back to the surface. In the last week alone, race became a contentious issue in the first presidential debate and on campus with the discovery of white supremacist flyers in a University of Michigan building. In this context, UM alum Dr. Natalia Molina’s lecture on racial scripts provided a clear and much-needed message: Racism is embedded in our institutions and must be addressed through comprehensive reform.

In honor of LatinX Heritage month, Dr. Molina traveled from University of California, San Diego, to present her new book “How Race is Made in America” this past Friday. Her presentation demonstrated how society racializes groups, establishing assumptions that stay connected to groups throughout history. These assumptions are what Dr. Molina calls “racial scripts.”

To illustrate her point, Dr. Molina showed us two photographs. We compared an early 20th century photograph of Chinese immigrants being subjected to special physical examinations at Angel Island and a contemporary photograph of Mexican immigrants being fumigated at the border. The racial script from this common treatment across time is the belief that certain immigrant groups are dirty or diseased.

This rhetoric appeared in the presidential campaign when Donald Trump claimed Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers who bring their diseases across the border. While the first two claims have been largely reported on and problematized, even Democrats haven’t publicly addressed his claim that Mexicans are diseased. This fits the trend identified by Damien Arthur and Joshua Wood in their study of the impact of context on presidential immigration rhetoric. The researchers found that more than 50 percent of immigration speeches given by presidents from 1993 to 2008 were framed in terms of illegality, criminality, terrorism and economic threats.

Dr. Molina further explained that racial scripts are built into our institutions and cultural representations. I was appalled by last week’s presidential debate in which both candidates only brought up race in terms of illegal immigration, terrorism and violence. Even Hillary Clinton only talked about police reform, while institutional racism in the education system remained off the table.

We must make our government and presidential candidates aware that we are not OK with framing race as a threat to society. We must also remember that when the Declaration of Independence proclaimed in 1776 that all men are created equal, it exclusively referred to white, property-holding men. This country was founded on the paradox of exclusionary human rights. Our founding fathers didn’t need to state, “not including non-whites, slaves, women and immigrants,” because it was assumed.

Today, we also want to leave race off the table because we are now supposedly a “color-blind” society. However, this silence on race is just as damaging as it was in the past, because it continues to leave institutional racism unaddressed.

Beyond the national stage, this past week we confronted racism on campus. Susan Svrluga of The Washington Post reported that flyers with messages of white supremacy were found in a University building, adding to a string of racist incidents occurring on campuses throughout the country in the last month. The story was accompanied by a tweet from a University student calling attention to the irony that these flyers would appear in a school that prides itself on being progressive and diverse. While the incident has recently called attention to race issues, historically the University has had and continues to have low enrollment of minority students. According to the University of Michigan’s Office of the Registrar, in the fall 2015 semester, 56.2 percent of the student body was white, while only 4.1 percent was Black. I can personally say I have taken a few classes where more than three-quarters of the students have been white.

The recent racist acts, along with Dr. Molina’s call for us to reexamine our institutions and our attitudes, set the scene for University President Mark Schlissel to announce his strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion this month. While this may be a step in the right direction, we, as students and faculty members, must do more to expose racist scripts that we encounter in our everyday lives.

Allison Lang is an LSA junior.