Racial issues and the University: community or chaos?

Today, matters of race dominate our political and social discourse. One need look no further than the public chasm exposed by the O.J. Simpson trial and the Million Man March to acknowledge that race matters in America. We approach the year 2000 realizing that the problem of the 21st century may well continue to be the problem of the color line. The same color line that W.E.B. Dubois described in 1953 in The Souls of Black Folk continues to divide the United States into a nation of people separate and unequal. The Emory community cannot help but be influenced by a milieu in which race and ethnicity are issues that shape the attitudes and behaviors of the American people.

The prevailing view on one side of the divide is that building race consciousness into all our policies and rhetoric destroys our sense of community. On the other side of the divide is the belief that society has a moral obligation to repair the damage done by 300 years of slavery and racial discrimination. In decaying inner cities our practice of public health is challenged by an atmosphere of anger and hopelessness that produces a climate conducive to the development of conspiracy theories about white (i.e., governmental) persecution of minorities, ranging from the belief that the government promotes drug abuse in black and Latino communities to the notion that HIV is a manmade biologic weapon of racial warfare.

These beliefs are validated when major news organizations such as 60 Minutes and The New York Times reported that in 1990, the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) anti-drug program in Venezuela used taxpayer money to ship a ton of nearly pure cocaine to the United States and allowed it to be sold on the streets in America. No criminal charges were brought in the case. While government officials responsible declared the matter a "most regrettable incident," many blacks and Latinos declared it "genocide."

An editorial in the Washington Post titled, "Crack in black and white," further illustrates what many minorities believe to be institutional racism. Current federal law contains a startling disparity between penalties associated with possession or trafficking in crack cocaine and penalties imposed for crimes involving powdered cocaine. The sale of five grams (the weight of two pennies) of crack, for example, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. One would have to sell 500 grams of powdered cocaine to get the same sentence. Additionally, simple possession of crack by a first-time offender who has no intent to distribute the drug is punishable by a mandatory minimum of five years, whereas possession of any other drug under the same circumstances is a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of one year. In 1993, persons convicted of selling crack cocaine were 88.3 percent black, 7.1 percent Hispanic, and 4.1 percent white. Comparable figures for sellers of powdered cocaine are 27 percent black, 39 percent Hispanic and 32 percent white. According to the editorial, there is no evidence that Congress intended to create a distinction that would have a disproportionate racial impact.

Despite published pronouncements about the end of racism, the fact remains that racial prejudice still haunts America. The United States remains divided into two worlds, separated by race and social class. Suburbanization, the most compelling demographic trend of the past 40 years, has contributed to reducing many cities to hollow shells populated largely by poor people of color. Public health describes this urban landscape in terms of risk factors and epidemics of HIV infection, homicide, drug addiction and other forms of excessive illness and death. The dismantling of social service programs will further the decay of these very communities. For the sake of the health of all Americans, we must rescue our cities from disintegration and rebuild in them the institutional infrastructure to provide basic social services and protect the public's health. This will require Emory to provide leadership in solving problems such as drug addiction, violence and AIDS -- issues not associated with our traditions of excellence. There are no easy answers, but we are blessed with tremendous resources to begin the process. Creation of an internal funding mechanism to encourage faculty and students to pursue excellence through academic scholarship focused on the most disadvantaged segments of our society could make a meaningful contribution.

In the final analysis, we must forge an alternative community without prejudice, victimhood or blame. We must facilitate healthy public policy based on the capacities, skills and assets of people living in low-income neighborhoods. This path leads to community development, the kind that recognizes the responsibility of both the individual and society. Even the poorest neighborhoods can build on the assets, skills and abilities of their residents and organizations. This path also leads to academic excellence, the kind that recognizes the value of service, research, theory and knowledge for the common good. Even the richest institutions of higher learning can become islands of intellectual irrelevance if they allow the broader community to deconstruct and decay. Emory has a choice and responsibility to accept its portion of the challenge to construct our national sense of community.

There are both dangers and opportunities in building bridges between those who control the system and those who have lost all hope in it. The opportunity is to approach the challenge as a catastrophe that can be rectified with an adequacy of resources. The danger is to remain locked in established paradigms that perpetuate stereotypes and widen the racial divide. If we are to remain the most vibrant and hopeful nation on earth, our diversity must pull us together, not drive us apart.

Stephen B. Thomas is an associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education and Director of the Institute for Minority Health Research in the Rollins School of Public Health.

Return to the May 6, 1996 contents page