To Be Young, Gifted and a Black Anteater

A fraternity's blackface video just scratches the surface of the long-standing hostility toward African-American students at UC Irvine

A week later, before an investigation by the university had been completed, the fraternity announced it would suspend its status as a UCI organization until fall 2014.

UCI vice chancellor Thomas Parham applauds the fraternity's quick apology and self-imposed suspension. "This particular group of men had a choice," he says. "They could have engaged in denial or gotten defensive and tried to rationalize their behavior, or they could have said nothing. But they stood up like men and apologized for their actions."

Parham (who's African-American) maintains that events such as the blackface video and hateful note found in a student's backpack are "deplorable," but he insists they're rare at UCI—and that the BSU is exaggerating the atmosphere on campus. "Those incidents can paint with a broad brush this institution as a hotbed of racism when it's not. . . . Not everyone thinks with the same mind and agrees with the same position. Many black students are having good experiences at this university."

UCI's Black Student Union and allies at a recent protest
Eric Hood
UCI's Black Student Union and allies at a recent protest
Kala Lacy: "UCI, I am tired of you ignoring me!"
Eric Hood
Kala Lacy: "UCI, I am tired of you ignoring me!"

The vice chancellor, who attended UCI as a student in the 1970s, says, "Diversity has been the hallmark of the campus experience for decades." Nearly 70 percent of the student body is made of people of color. (Asian-Americans make up 49 percent.) The school was the first in the University of California system to establish a Cross-Cultural Center, which has become a model for campuses across the country. There are diversity symposiums, workshops, support groups and festivals.

"Listen, I grew up in the shadows of [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and Malcolm [X]," he says. "I grew up marching for equality. I fought this struggle. I get it. I didn't just become not-black yesterday because I became an administrator. I don't deny that the incident existed. I don't deny the authenticity of the pain. But what we can't do is insulate students from every single incident or act of racial insensitivity. I can't control the fact that a fraternity would make an insensitive video."

Still, BSU members want the university to be held accountable. As far back as 1989, in a Los Angeles Times article tellingly titled "Why Some Blacks Feel Locked Out at UC Irvine," black students were complaining about an anti-black attitude on campus. The current BSU's demands for zero tolerance against discrimination and violence, an official punitive policy for future transgressions against the black community, and the establishment of an official African-American studies department, are virtually the same as those from students 24 years ago.

"It's so easy for people to say, 'forgive and forget' when no one has to deal with the violence except for us," Lacy says. "As a community, we're really over it, and we shouldn't have to be dealing with this anymore. We don't want to be the only ones fighting our battle the next time around."

*     *     *

It's lunch time at UCI, and BSU members are standing in silence in the middle of Ring Road, the school's bustling walkway. They're dressed in all black, and taped to each of their shirts is a sheet of white paper declaring a personal statement.

"Being black at UCI means I can't wear hoop earrings without being called 'ghetto,'" one reads.

"Being black at UCI means not being acknowledged by the faculty within your graduate program," reads another.

The whiteboard from the previous night rests under a tree. A handful of passersby stop to find out what's going on.

One BSU member tells an Asian student about the blackface video. "That's offensive?" the student asks.

Another young man on a scooter glides past the rally and yells, "So dramatic!"

Wearing a camouflage army jacket and combat boots, Lacy takes the megaphone. The loudspeakers screech before she begins to yell all the things she's wanted to say.

"UCI, I am tired of you ignoring me," she screams. "UCI, I am tired of you letting this violence happen. UCI, I am tired of you just walking past me and just watching me suffer. UCI, I should not be afraid to go to class for fear that someone will wonder why I am there. UCI, it should not be acceptable for 30 students to watch me be racially harassed at a bus stop. UCI, you are not allowed to touch my hair. UCI, I am tired of having to prove myself to you. UCI, I am just as valuable as you."

Her hand clenches into a fist. "UCI, we are tired! We are tired of having to fight every day. Do you hear me? We are tired! We are tired!"

She lowers the megaphone and begins to sob, her sunglasses masking her eyes. Two girlfriends comfort her.

"It's just something really heavy to carry," Lacy says, her voice calm once again. "Even though we're supposed to be out here strong, it's very real. People can walk by, they can read the signs, and they can forget about it, but this is something that's on our shoulders, on our mind all the time. And it gets really difficult to handle sometimes. It's knowing that after this is all done, I'm still gonna have to carry this—the community is still gonna have to carry this."

As the protest goes on, black students stand in the center of the pathway, arms linked, forming a chain.

In unison, they chant, "While there is racism, we will not rest!"

They wait for someone to stop and listen.

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