Much has been made of the fact that Barack Obama is the United States’ first black president, and in light of his inauguration being on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the media on Monday was full of allusions, such as “wouldn’t Dr. King be proud?” Perhaps. Electing a black president twice only 49 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act would certainly seem to indicate major progress in the area of racial equality. But the implicit meaning of “progress” is that the goal itself has not yet been reached, and while we should not disregard how far we’ve come, we must also acknowledge that there is still a ways to go — including at Knox.
In many ways, Knox is a microcosm of what is happening on the national level. The college touts itself as a paragon of diversity, and there is much to be proud of: in the overwhelmingly white rural Midwest, 25 percent of Knox students are students of color, including 7 percent African American, 9 percent Asian American, 9 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Native American.* This statistical diversity is largely due to concerted efforts on the part of the college to build a pluralistic student body. Such efforts across the country have also succeeded in bringing together people from vastly different racial backgrounds. Still, it is necessary to ask if this diversity is supported by equal rights, equal access and equal opportunity.
Unfortunately, there are many ways in which it is not. “Diversity” is more of a buzzword than a carefully considered issue, and what looks good on paper may not translate into reality. Many students of color at Knox still struggle with access, a problem that will be exacerbated if tuition jumps over $50,000 in 2014. Often, racial minorities are situated in pockets around campus with little interaction with students from other groups. And many of these students will tell you that they do not feel as though their needs are being adequately met.
Efforts to address these concerns have been admirable but insufficient. The formation of the Initiative for Diversity-Themed Events on Campus was a promising move, but it is unclear what this group has done so far. Knox’s plan to freeze tuition for current students who cannot afford to pay the increased amount is a similarly good idea, but the failure to publicize it to the groups who will need it the most before announcing the tuition hike was a serious oversight. And last year’s decision by the faculty to increase the number of DV credits required for graduation from one to two is a good step, but it is too early to see if this has made a difference. More needs to be done — and most importantly, minorities on campus need to feel as though more is being done.
This weekend is International Fair, a celebration of the diversity present on Knox’s campus. We sincerely hope that you will partake in this opportunity to learn about people different from yourself. Yet as Professor of Black Studies Fred Hord said during Monday’s convocation, we should not look at such celebrations as “proof positive” that there aren’t still issues to be addressed. It is tempting to bask in Knox’s on-paper diversity, but until every student feels that he or she is equally able to attend Knox and flourish as a member of this community, diversity cannot be considered synonymous with equality.
We urge the administration, especially administrators who are not specifically tasked with working with minority students, to keep in closer contact with them about their needs and what is being done to address them. For, as President Obama said on Monday, while equality in rights and opportunities has always been a self-evident truth, it has never been a self-executing one.
*Numbers may not add up to 25 percent due to some students reporting multiple racial backgrounds.