In a classroom at Stony Brook University, students can always guarantee they will be different from their peers: they will have different skin colors, be of different ethnicities and different religions. Racial diversity is one of the most prominent aspects of this campus, and it is something that is celebrated and embraced.
But Stony Brook did not always relish in this characteristic. Back during the days when students were Patriots instead of Seawolves, the campus community had a much more negative attitude towards minority groups. Students rioted, some professors faced discrimination and even the Administration displayed a prejudice against majors regarding minority cultures. In the years following the Civil Rights Movement racism was an issue that often appeared on the pages of the Stony Brook Press.
In 1976, about ten percent of Stony Brook’s student population of approximately 11,000 consisted of minority groups. They included black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaskan students. It was a time when political activism peaked among young, college-going liberals, and protests and rallies were not abnormalities on campus.
In a predominantly white community, black students struggled to achieve both academic and social acceptance during the late 1970s. “Some kids looked at me like they have never seen blacks before,” said Patrick Hilton, then the project’s coordinator for Black Students United, about when he first came to Stony Brook.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran in 1979 sparked a rally at Stony Brook against the latter country’s leader at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Graffiti denouncing Iranian students covered many surfaces around campus, only to be replaced by pleas such as, “Iranian & U.S. Students Unite!! A racist war, we won’t fight!!”
The Stony Brook Press ran an interview with an Iranian student about his views on the political strains between the two nations as well as his experience being an Iranian at an American university. The student, under the nom de plum Moshen, openly said he supported Khomeini. A negative response to that interview from an anonymous Iranian student ran in the next issue of the Press.
“After reading the article, I was ashamed to be an Iranian,” the responding student wrote. “The article most certainly did not represent the majority viewpoint of Iranian students here at Stony Brook.” The student questioned the motives of the Press in publishing the one-sided story, as it gave readers the wrong impression of Iranian students’ beliefs and ideas.
The early 1980s saw a rise in the National Socialist Party, a Neo-Nazi group. Other groups such as the Jewish Defense League, a militant group, opposed this party and often threatened it with violence. This party gained political momentum—embers, mostly Republican, excelled in presidential primaries. And while such groups existed in America, students at Stony Brook were both actors and victims of discrimination, too. In the late 1980s, minority clubs struggled to be treated equally by Polity, the predecessor of today’s Undergraduate Student Government.
The members of those clubs put together a Joint Minority Statement in an effort to show Polity that minority clubs did exist on campus, and that they were tired of being excluded from the budget-making and club recognition processes. But the real problem at hand, as a Press editorial suggested, was that the clubs felt ignored by not only Polity, but by campus media, the Administration and the white majority. Recognition, however, was gradually coming to them after the statement was made.
“A people only become the minority when they allow themselves to be ignored by a majority,” the editorial read. “Do not be ignored.”
But traces of racism showed up within minority groups as well. In 1992, the Minority Planning Board denied a membership to the Hillel Student Organization, a group that emphasizes Jewish campus life. One reason, said Ernesto Isaac, chairman of MPB, was because the board members felt that Hillel was more religious than cultural and did not fit in with the missions of other board members. Members of Hillel argued that MPB denied it membership because it was not close to the black student clubs, which made up most of the board members. The issue resulted in a revision of MPB bylaws.
As the number of minority students increased at Stony Brook—minority groups made up 27 percent of the student population by 1988, then soared to 62 percent in 2010—student leaders attempted to hinder minority clubs once again. In 2003, USG thought to consolidate all of the 11 Asian student organizations into one entity. Many of the groups argued that their missions differed because of various ethnicities, thus making the merger a bad idea.
Steven Chao, then the president of the Chinese Association at Stony Brook, said he did not believe it was an act of racism on USG’s part. The Asian-American E-Zine’s news editor at the time, Leo Na, however, thought differently. “They don’t understand…they probably think Chinese people are the same as Korean people. That’s racist.”
Faculty members plant the seeds of learning into the rich minds of students. They motivate them, challenge them and ultimately guide them on the paths towards their goals. But professors are not immune to racist acts.
In the 1970s, students accused Stony Brook faculty members of being racist towards minority students. Donna Franklin, who was a member of the Scholastic Achievement for Improvement of Non-Traditional Students, claimed that professors were not willing to spend time outside of class with black students. In turn, there were no programs created to tutor those students.
Professors were also victims of racism. Amiri Baraka, a poet and professor in the Africana Studies department, was arrested in 1979 after a series of incidents involving the police. Baraka was double-parked one night outside a movie theater on University Place in Manhattan when a police officer grabbed him out of his car by the collar and hit him with a nightstick. Three other officers also hit him, then dragged him on the pavement to the police car, shoved him in and held a gun to his head. Baraka said they never asked him what was going on or for him to move his car.
The officers took Baraka and his wife to the 6th precinct station in Manhattan. The couple had been fighting when the police came, so when it was time to come up with charges, they said the professor hit his wife, hit the officers and was carrying a deadly weapon. “You know the weapon you people always carry,” Baraka recalled an officer saying to him—a switchblade.
In his interview with the Press, Baraka said the jury selection at his trial for the arrest included only one black man. He said that if he were white, instead of pulling him out of his vehicle and hitting him, he believed the officers would have questioned him and the situation would have been handled in a more civilized manner.
Professors often criticized the Administration for having racist policies in the late 1970s. Academic departments such as Africana Studies had very questionable existences in terms of the support they received. Only one member in that department, Chairperson Leslie Owens, had tenure. Owens resigned from his position to protest the condition of the department because it lacked office space, full-time professors and room in the library for its collection of 2,000 books. Over 300 students also joined Owens in protesting.
Many argued that the Administration should have done more for minorities at Stony Brook. The Vice President of Student Affairs, Elizabeth Wadsworth, said the university did not offer enough to create a culturally diversified campus. And even though Stony Brook attempted to combat racism through holding symposiums, for example, it never put forth consequences for committing racial acts.
The Administration, however, began to accept more minorities as the years passed by, especially in 1988. That year the university implemented a Minority Outreach Program. Since that year, the minority rate at Stony Brook has doubled, and minorities groups have actually become the majority.
Although Stony Brook is more accepting of minorities, problems still arise when it comes to race. Minorities now have higher graduation rates than whites, and reports revealed that the NYPD has been spying on Muslim students here and at other northeastern colleges.
And nationally, affirmative action admissions policies in Texas are being revisited by the Supreme Court because Abigail Noel Fisher, who applied to the University of Texas, claimed she did not gain admittance into the school because she is white.
Stony Brook’s history shows that getting rid of racism is not an easy task. Although it is not as common now, it does still exist. But the numerous programs, clubs and organizations dedicated to representing the university’s minority groups show that the acceptance of everyone in the campus community, regardless of the color of his or her skin, surpasses the hate.