Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A University of Chicagoan Empire?

In the latest Maroon, Ashley White-Stern informs the University of Chicago community "that we live in a distrustful, colonial social order. Our colonial status is ensured by the distrust between temporary settlers (that’s us, the students) as a precious set of imported individuals, and the native “other” (often called community members), the dark peoples, savage and unknown."

White-Stern puts the U of C into a no-win situation: If the University is situated in the South Side of Chicago, and it reaches out to the community, then it's just trying to compensate for social inequalities, and is thus a colonial entity of the worst kind. But if the U of C decided, fine, compensation is no good, screw the community, let's just build a wall and be done with it, would that be preferable? Or perhaps, in the interests of not constantly forcing the otherwise vibrant South Side to confront the privileged brats of the U of C, maybe the school should pick up and move out to rural Minnesota or Vermont and let the South Side remain untainted. Since of course there's nothing remotely offensive or colonialist about a bunch of rich kids, never forced to meet anyone unlike themselves, spending four years learning how to be good liberals.

White-Stern continues: "In order to finally begin to amend the terrible racist legacies of the exclusion, criminalization, and marginalization of the black folks who live around the University, we must know that part of living in the warm folds of privilege entails the very ability to turn a blind eye to hypocrisy and segregation."

This is so glaringly false, I'm not sure how to respond, but I'll try. The University of Chicago's location makes its students--liberal and conservative alike--far more aware of the racial and economic divisions of this country than are students at small-town liberal arts schools, where students can explore their sexuality and various substances in peace. But just because the U of C finds itself near the site of social injustice or evidence thereof doesn't mean that it's the University itself that's the cause. I'd be the first to agree that Chicago is a frighteningly segregated city, but why, exactly, should an institution that brings diversity to the South Side, that puts a great deal of effort into its own community's racial diversity, be considered part of the problem? As an artificially-created diverse community, the U of C may be about as close to large-scale integration as can be found in the city of Chicago.

The University of Chicago has had a historically difficult relationship with its neighbors, but the U of C is also one of the few top universities in the nation never to have racially discriminated in its own admissions policies, so, when schools like Princeton took on affirmative action, it was to remedy its own past discriminatory practices, whereas when Chicago took on affirmative action policies, it was to remedy societal, not University-rooted, prejudice. Striving to make Chicago and the South Side more tolerant (and, ideally, less bleak) is a continual process, and one that the University does its part in contributing to.

It would have been great if White-Stern had thought to provide some ways in which the University could do more. But she set out simply to make a silly accusation that the U of C is a colony of the South Side and to make it clear that, whatever the school does, it won't be good enough. Of course, she's right that nothing the University does will "fix" Chicago. But there has to be a way of stating that without calling the institution itself a racist and imperialistic endeavor.


Maureen said...

I'm not sure how the University can be considered a colonizer of Hyde Park--it was established in 1892, back when the area was white upper-crust. Did the University do some Bad Things with regards to housing discrimination in the mid-twentieth century? Yes. But that doesn't make them a colonial entity--more like a reactionary entity (in the formal sense of "reactionary")

That being said, if the University were to buy land in Woodlawn--that would have definite colonial overtones. (Personally, I think of the University as a quasi-medieval fiefdom a la the Free University of Berlin :)

Nick said...

for the record, land in woodlawn is already too expesive for the university to buy.

land somewhere else, perhaps in certain other controversial locations...I cannot answer for.