SIU’s most recent discussion about race focused on Black history in the SIU region and prompted students and administrators to share ideas for addressing ongoing issues.
Joseph Brown, professor of Africana Studies at SIUC and moderator of the panel, said Black history in the SIU system’s communities is intertwined with Black history in the surrounding areas.
“As far as Black history goes, it’s not a rigid boundary. You have people moving back and forth for political and economic reasons. There were some people who had relatives everywhere, and … we have to understand that in East St. Louis, for instance, after the 1917 Race Massacre, about 10,000 Black people left that city and they went west, north, south and east, but the ones who went west helped to populate a number of the small towns and communities that are in St. Louis County today,” Brown said.
Andrew Theising, a political science professor, said fears of diversity contributed to a historical divide between rural and urban populations.
“Cities were big, scary things. There was a lot of vice there, there were lots of different diverse populations, they spoke languages that were unfamiliar, there was crime, there were a lot of things that rural America was afraid of, and I would argue that there are parallel feelings today,” Theising said.
Theising said the decision to place the main campus in Edwardsville rather than in East St. Louis coincided with white flight, which occurred as white people left urban communities for suburbs.
“White people were given tickets to move to suburbia and it left persons of color, particularly poor people of color, in urban centers. So every American city looks alike because of national government policies, and that is happening at the same time SIU is moving from East St. Louis, which was one of its initial anchor points, to the Edwardsville campus,” Theising said.
Theising said while he does not personally believe SIU’s decision was motivated by white flight, he said the general perception differs.
“The perception is certainly one that, here as African Americans started getting control of East St. Louis and its institutions, SIU seems to have fewer and fewer programs offered,” Theising said.
Barra Madden, third-year medical student at SIUC, from Rochester, New York, brought attention to more recent issues in the SIU system, such as the lack of consistency in the number of minority graduates in medical school, in her opening statement. Madden said numbers have ranged from three to 12 Black graduates since the 1980s.
“We want to see these numbers more consistent, given that we have a pipeline program that recruits minorities to SIU,” Madden said. “Why don’t we have a steady enrollment of at least eight to 12 Black students or minority students in each graduating class?”
Harriet Barlow, director of University of Nevada’s academic multicultural resource center, former SIUC faculty member and SIUC alumna, called on the SIU system to include a photo of the university’s first class on its website, which shows African American students represented in the 1870s.
“To be able to see yourself in those early pictures tells you something about the institution, and I think that is something that in this long history of SIU needs to be celebrated, and celebrated every day when somebody goes to that web page and they see that,” Barlow said.
Madden also called on the university to end medicine curricula that perpetuate racial stereotypes and myths.
“We’ve done numerous studies that show that genetically, white versus Black, we don’t have any differences. So why are we still pushing this narrative that you look at a Black person and they’re going to have these disparities versus a white person having something else?” Madden said. “So [what] I hope, for the future basically, is that as we pledge to be [an] anti-racist institution, we also pledge to eliminate a race-based medicine curriculum where we’re no longer going by whether you’re Black or white and just looking at the person as they present.”
Barlow said while she does not see a difference in how universities have responded to social issues recently and how they responded 30 years ago, she believes current events such as COVID-19 and police brutality may be forcing universities to change how they react.
“So many things happening, just with the COVID and the quarantine and self-isolation and the requirement for institutions now to deliver instruction, obviously, has changed,” Barlow said. “And then when you add in the issues and the circumstances of the murders and then the election and … all of those things are now making universities look through different lenses in how to deal with society, how they place themselves in society and how they support the people and members of their community.”
Madden said COVID-19 and the events of last summer combined to make people aware of racial disparities.
“It made people aware of our society and our political atmosphere and climate that I believe was a perfect storm for not only Blacks to further their narrative of how life is, but also whites to become allies to fight against systemic racism in regards to healthcare and minorities receiving treatment,” Madden said.
Brown said he saw many similarities between what Black students shared during the panel and what Black administrators experienced in their youth.
“The young students, especially the young medical students, were talking about things that Harriet Barlow had gone through, that I had gone through, that [Director of the East St. Louis Center] Timothy Staples had gone through. And that was something that we were able to give them support, and even if not comment on, at least recognize that the sad part of our storytelling is that things have not changed that much,” Brown said. “But the one thing that I thought was extraordinarily hopeful was that those of us who were faculty, and experienced faculty, were able to say, ‘We’re here for you, even though … we had to find people who were there for us.’”
Watch the full Conversation of Understanding on the SIU System’s YouTube page.