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The "Straight Thuggin' party held in a UC dorm, controversy and considerations

This page is presented by the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference and its website www.hydepark.org. One of our duties is to promote a diverse, secure, caring, and attractive community and to monitor happenings and decisions in our institutions that impact the community and relationships within it. We believe the questions raised by this incident, and responses to it, do have ramifications for our communities and its neighbors. Won't you help support our work by joining HPKCC?

 

Overview. The Thuggin' party. Who failed? Did the University fail at informing the community?

A theme party for Halloween at May House in the on-campus dormitory system offended many and raised concerns about racial and other perceptions and interactions on campus. Details have been very well covered in the campus newspapers (including a careful long letter by a member of the house who is African-American) and the city dailies. Television also rushed in, including two TV stations that came to the HPKCC board meeting on November 3. The media, many of feel--mainly TV --blew the matter out of proportion to make a story; other media rightly used the issue to explore fault lines in our society.

The November 2 article in section 2 of the Chicago Tribune quoted HPKCC board member Rolissa Tutwyler.

Question: Is a large part of the student body an imported and continually turning-over enclave that doesn't interact with the rest of Hyde Park and beyond--or even shop on 53rd? Is campus to some extent a :"ghetto"? Maybe "barrio" is better, since nothing is keeping students bottled up there and many travel widely through the city.

At the November 3 HPKCC board meeting, members felt that

The University tried to control the story and did not quickly brief community stakeholders such as the Conference as to the situation and facts. It was difficult for our president to have to respond to queries in the dark or on the basis of a Tribune article.

There was a general feeling that the students acted out of ignorance, not malice. This was one of several theme parties that spoof and allow people to have fun acting out various pop-culture themes and group stereotypes. The sources on these themes, such as MTV, and in some cases the "culture" stereotyped and parodied is sometimes very vulgar and glories the lowest common denominator, so it shouldn't surprise that the kid's acting out is at least as vulgar although generally, being at a remove, is without the bite of the original that came from peoples' pain. That may be one reason for general disgust about the party--what right did these well-off school kids, manifestly not from the parodied groups and out of context, have to do this, whether or not the intent was to make-fun-of.

Many felt the incident itself is not worthy of being a major story, but should be an opportunity for badly-needed education all around.

One of the most telling shortcomings revealed, according to members, is the paucity of particularly African American minorities on campus--only 4 percent in the student body, and declining. It was noted that this has been a major concern of the University, definitely including President Randel, and efforts are being made. The questions are why, and what can be done.

The low levels of minorities on campus vs the neighborhood plus an apparent isolation of many students within campus was thought to result in many students not having real experience with the people who make up our and surrounding neighborhoods.

Some remarked that there are other inter group tensions on campus and in the neighborhood (especially with regard to Jews and Palestinians, sometimes gays) and that students of all stripes are profiled by police and others when "out of their place" or seemingly threatening.

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From the Autumn 2005 Conference Reporter

Offensive Campus Party Reason to Re-Engage on Race, Respect

Report on the Nov. 8 University-wide meeting
By Gary Ossewaarde

An offending campus party provides opportunity to re-engage on race, respect

On October 14 2005, residents of May House, a part of the University of Chicago student housing system, held a party themed “Straight-Thuggin’ Ghetto.” The party was not sanctioned or funded by the University but somehow not flagged and stopped by adult resident masters—although the organizers received advice against the theme.

Since the party, an intense debate has raged on campus and in wide-ranging media over whether and in what ways the party was offensive and what it might say about attitudes and human relations at the university and larger community, and how to address them.

The matter also came up at the HPKCC November Board meeting—visited by press and 2 TV stations. The board noted that our Mission calls on us to work toward a diverse and caring community. Members generally thought the best approach is for all to use this bad-taste mistake as an opportunity for people to learn from and about each other, open conversation, and find better ways of treating, respecting and relating to each other. Members did think the administration was tardy in notifying community residents and organizations about the matter and did not understand the subtleties of modern youth culture, but otherwise acted appropriately.

A wide spectrum of people and media have noted that this (and some of the other theme parties at this and other dorms) certainly embodied bad taste but, according to all indications, was not intended to be an insult or mockery. It crossed a line, in this line of thinking, first in imputing without differentiation a certain lowest-denominator culture and behavior to blacks and certain neighborhoods; second in dress, acting-out and comments at the party; and third that this was (by assumption) privileged white kids thoughtlessly parodying what they thought of (at least poorer) blacks. Beyond this, it rubbed a raw nerve in this campus, Hyde Park and on the South Side, where racial concerns are embedded in history and in relations within and between neighborhoods and between these and the University.

The “lowest denominator” aspect seems to be confirmed by the title, “Straight thuggin’” that seems to have come from a rap song that either glorifies or satirizes drugs, prostitution, mugging, and murder. Many, including African Americans in the media, say this, and even the larger (not synonymous) phenomenon known as Hip-Hop, does not reflect typical attitudes or culture among African Americans and embarrasses most of them—but that many younger people—black and white—have absorbed these phenomena from pop radio/video media. These commentators generally added, including to African Americans on campus, “If you find that party offensive, be sure you aren’t doing the same” or imposing a double standard of political correctness.

Many commenting added that the real offense was that the party was staged by a group of (presumed) privileged white young people who in doing so, according to the University administration in its University-wide letter, “parodied racial stereotypes based on assumptions about economically disadvantaged members of society.”

Some responded that this is an overreaction that loads too much burden on a careless act. But Ken Warren, Assistant Provost for Minority Issues, said at the University-wide meeting November 8 that this “thoughtlessness” is precisely the problem—and the way many people on campus and in society approach both minority issues and persons who are different from them. He suggested that the University is eminently a place to start replacing thoughtlessness with information, insight and respect.

The University responds

The University investigated the matter over several days, issued a public letter condemning the themed party, and held a University-wide open meeting intended to start a conversation and new course on the human relations issues raised by the incident.

Close to 400 packed Hutchinson Commons on November 8. Four lead administrators presented facts, the trajectory of University response, the University position, and reactions to it—from “overreaction” to “not tough enough.” They then opened the floor to wide-ranging and increasingly heated (but civil) comments and questions—at times person to person debate, summarized main points and suggestions for next steps, and received two proposals for action from minority student groups.* Small group discussions of next steps seemed likely.

University Provost Richard Saller noted that this is not just an internal University issue but directly involves relations with communities, with which the university must become more engaged collaboratively. He made it clear that the University is convinced the party was both offensive and symptomatic of a problem with the campus climate.

Ana Vazquez, Deputy Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs, confirmed the latter by reading results of a campus-wide survey of minority students taken a few months ago that showed a large number of incidents and/or perceptions of discrimination, ostracism, stereotyping, and lack of sensitivity.

She said she was not surprised some such incident occurred; it was only a matter of time. She also said that the University’s commitment to improvement is real, foundations have been laid, and the University will follow through. Efforts to recruit more minorities in all sectors is stronger than ever. The university is establishing, especially for staff, diversity and sensitivity training. Architectural plans have been prepared for a diversity center.

Insights from the audience included the remark of some minority persons that they were tired of always having to be the one to justify themselves and their lives—“white people can choose to think about race or not; I’m given no choice but to deal with it all the time.” People from many distinct minorities described bad person experiences or disrespect for flyers and events they put on—the problem is not just for African Americans. Many explained what offended them about the party. When some still questioned why it was offensive, one fourth-year responded, “I’m tired of having to explain…to the majority…Ask your fellow white student as a student why they were offended.”

[Additional material not printed:]

Later, at least some students, and the Hyde Park Herald, griped that there were few positive proposals on either diversity or sensitivity. The Herald editorialized that the University should have immediately condemned the party and punished the partygoers.

More seriously, the Herald noted, there appears to be no code of conduct or systematic way of addressing such incidents or racism in general, and seems to be little institutional memory. The Herald went back to a more traditional way of dealing with such issues--the students are only temporary, the University should set the rules, and has the resources to develop an informed policy.

Rod Sawyer, also in the Herald, was a little more sympathetic but sadder. He noted that college kids for at least two generations have drawn their most charitable assumptions about black lives from "Good Times," "The Jeffersons" et al. There is nothing like knowing real people and walking in their shoes to lead to understanding. He also added, probably partly tongue in cheek, that if the partygoers had taken on the roles in addition to the clothes, they may have gotten a pass. Next time a safer example? Like an Eminem theme party.

[*A major demand in petitions was that the University seek to double minority representation in the student body from 4 to 8 percent by 2012, a goal with which the University seems comfortable.

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From the University letter, from President Randel, Provost Saller, VP/Dean Stephen Klass

Dear University Community,

To achieve our mission as a great university we continue to strive fro a productive educational environment for all students. On the evening of October 14, in a student residence hall room, a private party was held with a theme that parodied racial stereotypes based on assumptions about economically disadvantaged members of society. The premise of this party cause substantial offense and has generated vigorous discussion among students, faculty and staff across campus. Members of the Office of Undergraduate Student Housing and the Office of Minority Student Affairs have been working closely with all students involved in the incident.

The issues at stake, however, are larger than this one distressing episode and raises questions about the campus climate for minority students, faculty, and staff. The University has already begun to focus on these concerns and remains fully committed to exposing and addressing the factors that negatively affect the quality of life for some members of our community. .....

The University of Chicago is a community of scholars dedicated to research, academic excellence, and the pursuit and cultivation of learning. Every member of the University--student, faculty, and staff--makes a commitment to strive for personal, academic and professional integrity; to treat others with dignity and respect; to honor the rights and property of others; to take responsibility for individual and group behavior; and to act as a responsible citizen in a free academic community and in the larger society. We can only be successful in becoming the University we so envision if all members of our community remain dedicated to these principles.

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In wake of University-wide meeting, Dep. Provost Warren vows to boost campus diversity

Kenneth Warren, recently appointed Deputy Provost on Minority Issues, after co-chairing the Provost's Initiative on Minority Issues. Warren notes that in the past the small size of the College- absolute and relative to graduate programs- limited recruitment pools that could be tapped. But the College has grown and the mission for diversity grown stronger. The task ahead includes aggressive contact, relationships with counselors at schools, bringing prospees to campus, sufficient financial aid packages, and effective advising and mentoring programs/support services. Faculty recruitment requires really aggressive outreach and attractive research opportunities. Needing reexamination, he added, was diversity training and student orientation. He also advised concerned students to get busy in the community on diversity issues, including in the Community Service Center and Neighborhood Schools Program.

Disagreement continues as to how bad the University's record on enrollment and faculty diversity, University officials saying the 4.5 percent official number is unacceptable but an incomplete statistic and that faculty recruitment is a long-haul project. 4th Year Kenneth Jones said at the November 8 meeting, "...you look at the U. of C. and it's on the South Side in a very black neighborhood. But it's still not attractive to black students. Generally speaking, the feeling among many blacks on campus is one of isolation."

Doing considerably better than UC on rates are Columbia, Princeton, Brown, Yale, and Stanford. UC did better than Stanford on Latino, than Brown on Asian, and all the others on non-white "other."

Asst. Provost Warren said at the same meeting that the 52 African American students represent and increase in a rising population and is better than at Stanford [?] and Ivy League schools. The Concerned Students for Campus Consciousness (CSCC), in their action proposal, called for more aggressive recruitment so that AA number be 8 percent by 2011. The Students of Color Coalition (SCC) spokespersons (who support the above goal also) told the Herald, as reported November 16, that while the administration has been supportive, the majority of the student body does not.

Vice President Michael Behnke told the Herald that over 6 years African American retention is 82% versus 88% overall and 89% for Latino, all three having significantly risen during that time. He cited the "Chicago Experience" program which brings both prospective and admitted students to campus--100 African American and Latino students from around the country visited the University in November, he said.

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What the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture will do to help increase racial stability and experience on campus

Waldo E. Johnson, Jr. appointed in fall 2005 to head the UC Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture has big plans. In addition to weekly workshops it will facilitate meetings and initiatives re fallout from the "Thuggin' Party" incident and will sponsor as big symposium on Wal-Mart in January. He also hopes the Center's dialogue will go beyond the black-white paradigm while working to provide the "racial experience" shown last fall to have contributed to tensions and incidents on campus. It hopes to provide new resources in the dorms and promote within the Core a curricular addition in comparative culture.

Into the new year 2006, is anything really happening?

Despite brown bag lunches and other sparely-attended conversations, a number of students are demanding more discussion and University action to improve the climate. The Weekly news of February 2 reported on a small "Continuing Dialogue on Campus Racial Climate," which included a 15-minute video by Prof. Trisha Rose on the "ghettofication" of at least the portrayal and hence perception of black culture.

What the students want, the article reported, is for the administration to prove and send the message, visibly, "that it takes the issue seriously." This could start with the top administrators regularly coming to such dialogues. Ideas were shared for changes with orientation including videos about past and present of Hyde Park, an up-to-date diversity video, and cultural shows starting in O-week. They also sought a mandatory Core section focused on racial education and a mandatory service requirement. Others point out that the mandatory part is likely to backfire. Is it not really a matter of individuals and sets being as open, alert, and self-critical as possible? So President Randel told a brown bag lunch in early February, adding that having the Office of Minority Affairs is not enough.

Discussion at this same Presidential Brown Bag moved from what was the University going to do to improve business climate and offerings in Hyde Park to whether the University is committed to bringing in big corporations rather than supporting locals and to whether and what the university is thinking when it says "Make Hyde Park a place people want to live" and yet "affordable:" A place where who wants to live? What is the University doing to alleviate racial tensions in the neighborhood, not just the U of C.

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Another incident? Anti Semitic and racist remarks on Hitchcock whiteboard (coming after a major incident at Northwestern), raises new concerns

January 25 racist and anti Semitic remarks were discovered on a whiteboard outside a two-student room in Hitchcock dorm. Vice President Steve Klass announced the administration is taking action and that the response must be strong and unified. Klass told press he was especially disappointed in that it came so soon upon the incident and ongoing conversations about the Thuggin' incident (see above). Others connected this to annual defacement of Jewish groups' event posters. This event comes on the heal of a similar incident in a Northwestern University dorm.

Statement issued by Dean of Students Steve Klass, January 26, 2006:

I received a report this morning that, last night, racist and anti-Semitic remarks were written on a whiteboard attached tot he door of a student's dorm room. Housing staff discovered this situation and immediately began the process of determining how this occurred and who is responsible. They have notified the House in which the event took place and are actively providing support for the community. That process continues as I write this.

This conduct is a violation of Housing, University and community standards. Any form of abusive, threatening or harassing behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. I am particularly disturbed that this follows the very public discussion of these matters that began last quarter and continues to this day. I am working closely with the appropriate University offices in pursuing this as a serious incident of racial and ethnic harassment.

I would like to remind students who have witnessed or have been the victim of this or similar incidents that you have a variety of support resources available. A list of these University resources can be found in the "'Voices of Our Community' Diversity, Civility, and Equity Resource Guide" which is also available on-line at http://dos.uchicago.edu/civility.shtml.

And another in a dorm on posted comments on the Prophet with the cartoons.

The latest uproar is over arrests of an allegedly disruptive protest of marine recruiters. One of the more serious discussions was a talk by Geoff Stone describing the limits of free speech--in particular application of the First Amendment--and the rights and obligations of such institutions as the University.

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