Fifty years later, true nature of race relations still open for discussion

Jordan Cissell

“Look at that black guy riding by on his skateboard right now,” Utz McKnight said, swiveling in our bench on the Crimson Promenade to point out a skateboarder weaving coolly through congested lunch-time foot traffic.

“He’s not looking around thinking ‘look at all these racist white people.’ No, he’s wishing all these slow movers would get on out of his way so he could get rolling,” he said, “And those white women he just passed didn’t scream and jump when they saw him – that wouldn’t have been the case 50 years ago.”

It’s no coincidence McKnight, department of gender and race studies chair and associate professor of political science, chose to look exactly five decades back for his point of comparison. This year marks the 50-year anniversary of then Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” and James Hood and Vivian Malone Jones’s successful integration of the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963.

McKnight contributed to the team of researchers that earlier in the spring semester administered a study entitled “Race Relations at The University of Alabama” a survey tasked with gauging current UA students’ perceptions of interracial group interactions within the campus community. Similar studies have been conducted since the University’s integration in 1963.

Debra McCallum, director of the Institute for Social Science Research, said the Institute was not ready to release any information from the survey at press time, as the researchers have not yet had adequate time to sort and analyze response data. McKnight, however, feels the University as an institution is “doing pretty good,” by the numbers at least.

In a Feb. 20 interview with The Crimson White, Art Dunning, professor and senior research fellow in the Education Policy Center, said he was one of what he approximates to be 10-15 African-American students during his undergraduate years at the University. When Dunning matriculated in 1966, the University’s total enrollment was 12,995, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment’s 2012-2013 Fact Book. According to the University website, 13 percent of the 33,602 undergraduate students enrolled in the fall semester of 2012 identified as African-American.

“That’s better than [the University of California] Berkeley when I was there,” McKnight says. (According to the Office of Planning and Analysis at UC Berkeley, 874 of the school’s 25,774 fall 2012 undergraduate enrollment identified as African-American, or 3.39 percent.) “We’ve got better diversity numbers than most western schools, most northeastern schools.”

But in brim-packed Burke Dining Hall immediately following our conversation, the number of lunch tables at which black and white people were seated together was one.

“Though it is often subdued and indirect, racism does exist on campus and is an important issue,” Shashank Wattel, a sophomore majoring in electrical and computer engineering, said in an emailed message. “It’s not just whether people get along or not.”

No one planted his or her body in defiance between another human and the drink machine. No insults were lobbed from one end of the salad bar to the other. But with the exception of that one table, representatives of different ethnic groups engaged in little to no interaction. Certainly not overwhelming evidence of collective racist thought, but according to McKnight, it’s difficult to tell whether or not people are getting along if they are not even getting together.

“Everybody here has access to black people. If you’ve grown up and lived in Alabama all of your life, that’s more unique than you may think,” McKnight says. (Approximately 26 percent and 40 percent of Alabama and Tuscaloosa’s respective populations identified as African-American in the 2010 U.S. Census. According to the same data set, 55 percent of the nation’s black population resided in the South.) “I’ve known people from other parts of the country who told me they never even had the opportunity to speak with a black person until they got to college. You’re going to have a hard time pulling that off in Alabama.

“Why not take advantage of that history of familiarity – of conflict – between races? Having grown up in this state, you have the tools to identify the problems and contribute to the development of the solutions. Once we get out of our own way, we can really start to learn from each other and figure stuff out. Our sensitivity on an issue like race often prevents meaningful dialogue – we’re so worried about saying the wrong thing that we never get down to the heart of the argument.”

Colby Moeller, a freshman from California majoring in marketing and finance, said he has not personally encountered or observed a situation of outright racial tension, but he perceives the subject as a consistently more prominent issue within the public conscience in Alabama than in his home state.

“Especially with born-and-raised Southerners and Alabamians, it seems like something people tune into more, something people talk about and disagree and make a big deal over more than the people I know on the West Coast,” Moeller said.

McKnight feels disagreement should not be mistaken for an obstacle to understanding and improvement, but rather a catalyst.

“I don’t think we have any problems here in Tuscaloosa or Alabama – issues beyond the social level of race relations like disproportional imprisonment or resource availability, that they don’t have in Georgia or Mississippi, or even Boston or Seattle,” he said.

According to a June 2010 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 40 percent of inmates held in federal, state or local prisons at June 30, 2009, were of black, non-Hispanic origin. 2010 Census data show 14.6 percent of non-Hispanic American citizens identified as African-American in 2010.

“What’s different is the issues are visible here. That’s a good thing. People have acknowledged that these problems exist. They acknowledged them 50 years ago, and the fact that we are even sitting here talking about the anniversary of integration is a great thing. It shows people are thinking about it now.

“So once again the University is placed at the center of this whole historical issue, because universities are where students learn to think critically and challenge their ideas and the ideas of others. I think we’ve done a great job of showing you that you can argue, but now we need to get better at showing you how. That’s our job.”

Elayne Savage, now a communication consultant and author living in Berkeley, attended the University as an undergraduate in the early 1960s and served with the group of student campus leaders then Dean of Men John L. Blackburn coordinated to ensure the University’s peaceful integration in 1963. She said disagreement should also not be mistaken for disrespect.

“You have to have multiple sides to an argument, especially one like this one, or nothing will get done. Disagreement and challenge fuels meaningful discussion,” she said in a Feb. 20 interview with The Crimson White. “But there’s a difference between disagreeing and hurting. Intentionally hurtful comments do nothing to challenge you or the other party in the argument, and they make people shut down and close up.”

In many cases, McKnight feels, necessary arguments are shut down and closed up before they even begin.

“The questions we were asking 50 years ago are not the questions we need to be asking now. Back then we were trying to figure out if black and white people could go to the same school – now we’ve figured that one out. But there are new questions to ask, ones students need to be asking of themselves and others,” he said. “It’s easy to fall into this blame game thing where one side says ‘those people are lazy’ and the other says ‘I wasn’t given enough opportunity to succeed.’ That benefits nobody.

“The people who don’t want anything to change want to keep arguments at that superficial level, because nothing gets done that way. But there’s always a secondary level of questioning and discussion, and that’s where people learn and change. At the end of the discussion, we may still disagree, but at least we’ve actually discussed.”

Our discussion began under the pretenses of investigating the true depth of the University’s steps towards improved race relations over the course of the 50 years since integration, both as an institution and a student body, but McKnight feels such an exploration is largely a trivial one.

“We’re not going to get anywhere by looking and back and saying, ‘this should have been done differently back in the 1970s,’ or wondering how much has changed here since 1963,” he says. “The fact is, regardless of how we got to this point, this is the present, and we need to take ownership of what we’ve inherited. Just because I reach age 40 doesn’t mean I can pull out and no longer have a stake in what’s going on.

“You wouldn’t approach your own life by just sitting back and letting whatever is going to happen in 10 years happen. If you don’t take responsibility for questioning each other, defining problems and determining solutions, who will?”

Dunning approaches each day with the same perspective and said he regularly encourages students to do the same.

“Whenever I meet or talk with any student, I always ask them, ‘what do you think the problems are on this campus, in our society?’” Dunning said. “And then I ask them, ‘what have you done today – what are you doing right now – to solve them?’”

When asked about her impression of the progress the University has made after 50 years of integration, Savage’s response was simple.

“I don’t know. I graduated in 1963 – you’re a student right now,” she said. “You tell me.”