Daily Egyptian

Letter to the Editor: Response to Tuesday’s LTE

By SIU student Johnathan Flowers

The first “letter to the editor” I wrote to the Daily Egyptian was a piece published February 2015, wherein I discussed the problems with the university’s “numbers” approach to diversity. The second “letter to the editor” I wrote to the Daily Egyptian was a piece published November 2015, where I tackled the then-simmering discontent of underrepresented students on our campus, concluding with the following statement, which seems prophetic in light of recent events:

“When something like Mizzou happens on our campus, it will be the result of the situation growing so intolerable that our suffering outweighs our fear… it will be because we can no longer endure the kinds of conditions in our departments and classrooms that make the primary mission of the institution all but impossible. It will be because we — students, faculty, staff — said with one voice ‘enough.’”

As we have seen, underrepresented students (I among them), and few brave faculty, have decided to collectively say “enough,” and have chosen to no longer quietly submit to conditions of intolerance on campus. However, this the third time I have written to the Daily Egyptian, is not about their bravery, this isn’t even about diversity.

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This is about the collective failure of the university to understand how it maintains oppression through the perpetuation of viewpoints like those expressed by Mr. Kirk Powell and Mr. Alex Summers in previous letters to the editor.

This is an object lesson in the failure of the university to fulfill its missions of education, inclusive excellence and diversity.

Now, there seems to be some confusion as to how the university handles diversity, particularly on behalf of Mr. Powell and Mr. Summers, who frame the university’s attempts at generating programs to aid in the success of underrepresented groups as some form of reverse discrimination. The Illinois Board of Higher Education defines membership in underrepresented groups as:

“persons identified as African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaskan Native, persons with disabilities, and first-generation students, defined as persons who are the first in their immediate family to attend a postsecondary institution of study.”

Underrepresented groups, those who would benefit from the institutional solutions that the university puts in place, are more than non-white students: they are, as Mr. Powell has pointed out, also women. The IBHE adds people with disabilities and first-generation students, but I don’t think it goes far enough: LGBTQ students and undocumented students should also be included in the category of underrepresented. Now, it should be noted that all of these individuals require different solutions to their historical marginalization.

And that’s what this is about: the historical exclusion of individuals from institutions of higher education specifically, and participation in society generally.

That’s the point: The programs that Mr. Summers and Mr. Powell have targeted as “reverse discrimination” or “preferential treatment” are put in place to provide an institutional solution, e.g. a program from the university or the government that aims to redress historic wrongs, to a social problem.

The social problem that I’m referring to is manifest in Mr. Powell and Mr. Summers’ letters, by their lack of understanding of the ongoing marginalization of the people who supposedly benefit from these “unfair” programs, and by the fact that they felt so offended that they needed to write their letters.

To provide an example of what I’m talking about, let’s look at a statement from Mr. Powell’s letter:

“In my particular academic program, women are routinely given preferential treatment in aid to their degree. What makes a woman more entitled to the opportunities of a college degree? Why would the university sanction preferential treatment when it should be so keenly aware of the consequences of spreading indoctrinated hatred?”

To answer Mr. Powell’s first question, I’d say nothing. Women are not more “entitled” to the opportunities afforded by a college degree, but that’s not the point of the “preferential treatment” Mr. Powell is referring to.

The point is that in Powell’s academic program — computer science — nationally only 18 percent of those who graduate with degrees are women. The point is that our society has generated social barriers that discourage women from entering computer science and other STEM fields. The point is that the dominance of STEM fields by men continues to maintain these social barriers. The point is that only 35 percent of graduate students in computer science at SIUC are women, and the ratios for faculty are much, much worse.

The point, Mr. Powell, and all others who share his view, is not that women are ore entitled or more deserving of a degree than straight white cis-sexual men. The point is that society, which is dominated by straight white cissexual men, has not caught up to the fact that women, and other underrepresented groups, can and do contribute to the development of society in a variety of ways: it is only the barriers put in place by those with, dare I say the word, privilege that prevent them from their full participation in society.

This is why there are programs to assist with retention and recruitment of women and other underrepresented groups; this is why organizations like “Girls Who Code” exist to funnel students into computer sciences program; and this is why women and underrepresented groups are so fed up with not being treated as persons by the institutions that are supposed to train them for the “real world.”

To bring it back home: this is why students of color feel “accepted but not welcomed” on campus.

We have students, and faculty, who do not believe that we have earned our place in the hallowed halls of institutions of higher education; we have people who we have entrusted with the responsibility to prepare us to contribute to our fields and the world who believe our presence on this campus is the result of “reverse discrimination;” we have an entire campus community that is blind to the ways in which society is constructed to confer unearned benefits, privileges, simply by virtue of who they are.

This actually makes a nice segue to critique Mr. Powell’s suggestion that “As a matter of policy, the university must recognize that all lives matter, not ones that fill diversity quotas to make the Board of Trustees sleep better at night.”

Yes, Mr. Powell, all lives matter, but all lives do not matter equally. Some people had to fight, and are still fighting, to prove that their lives matter, that their lives were worthy of being considered human. The very fact that I am writing this piece proves that they have fallen short of that aim.

If, as Mr. Powell suggests, all lives mattered equally, then there would be no need for the programs that Mr. Powell decries. In fact, the very existence of these support structures for underrepresented groups means that all lives do not matter equally to the university and society at large.

If all lives matter, then why is it the case that we do not learn the history of all lives and the cultures they belong to? Why do we have to fight for specialists in the cultures of underrepresented groups? Why are the programs and departments that provide the cultural education that is so necessary in this climate of intolerance and fear constantly under attack?

I might hazard the opinion that it is because the institution that we are part of does not think that the culture and, by extension, the lives that embody that culture, matter.

Put another way, if “all lives matter,” then all lives and the cultures that they embody would be represented in the faculty, in the programs we offered.

We could do work in Islamic Philosophy, or women’s contributions to STEM, or explore the differences in computer user interfaces when developed by women, LGBTQ individuals, and people with color seriously, without the work being belittled as a P.R. stunt. If all lives mattered, then all lives would feel welcome at this institution, and all lives would be able to receive the kind of education promised by this institution in its motto, “deo volente.”

Now, I might be being a little unfair to Mr. Powell: I should not hold Mr. Powell personally responsible for the perpetuation of oppression, including the offensive “all lives matter” comment made in his article. He is but a product of the society, as is the university.

However, if this institution is to embody inclusive excellence and diversity promised in its mission statement, then it has a responsibility to educate students like Mr. Powell as to why his views are part of, and contribute to, the kinds of ideologies expressed in the infamous “ATO AZO” YouTube video.

This institution has the responsibility to teach Mr. Powell, and those like him, how white privilege structures his everyday life, and the lives of all those who feel accepted but not welcomed on this campus.

Until the institution takes up this responsibility in earnest, it will continue to produce individuals like Mr. Powell and send them forth into the world to perpetuate the very issues we face here on campus.

As for you, Mr. Powell, if you wish to learn more about how your letter is a textbook example of “the methodology of hatred, using the tools of preferential treatment in the same way as our oppressors of the past,” I have office hours. Please make use of them.

Johnathan Flowers is a doctoral candidate in philosophy from Oak Park 

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