The University Record, March 25, 1997

Universities must 'change the nature of the debate'
on race relations

By Jared Blank

Roger Wilkins believes that the current state of race relations has become a national pathology. "Our current condition is screaming to us that we are in or about to enter very dangerous times," he said.

The professor of history and American culture at George Mason University presented the Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom last week at Rackham Amphitheater. The lecture honors three U-M faculty members who were called to testify before a Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities. When they refused to answer questions about their political associations, the three were suspended, and two were later fired.

As president of the student chapter of the NAACP at Michigan, Wilkins personally petitioned the Regents on behalf of Davis, Markert and Nickerson.

Wilkins discussed his years as both an undergraduate and law student at Michigan during the 1950s, noting that he "never encountered a Black adult who worked for this University" while he was a student, nor was he assigned a book, poem or essay by a non-white author. He said that it wasn't until he studied Brown v. Board of Education in law school that he was taught by the University that an African American had done "anything of value."

Wilkins added that, had it not been for the lessons of self-worth and respect that he learned at home, he would have felt that he was "nobody."

During the same period, Wilkins said that white students were hurt because they were given a false sense of superiority and a false history. Universities "fail students profoundly" by not teaching them to appreciate those different from themselves.

"We have to at least teach our kids that they will be safer when they understand each other," he said. "We need to produce new knowledge about how Americans confront their myths." He added that universities must be at the forefront of this movement, and he advocated what he called "aggressive mixing" on campuses.

For example, Wilkins said, when he assigns group projects in his classes, he ensures that each group is racially mixed even though "it's unpopular to say that one goal of education is to introduce one group to another." Wilkins also condemned the existence of fraternities, as they attract like students to live together.

Wilkins said that Universities must "change the nature of the debate" by forcing people to examine race relations as a matter of national survival. "The danger is here, but the response of higher education is hopelessly out of date," he noted. "We have to figure out how to navigate the next 50 years---[to understand] Americans come in all colors, and that we can't be afraid of each other or we will tear our country apart. I don't think any other country has done it. I don't know that we can do it."