On April 25, 1987, the Indianapolis Recorder ran a story about black Indiana lawmakers responding to an issue of racial harassment at Purdue University, “Black Lawmakers Seek Solution to Racial Uneasiness at Purdue.” After the university’s president released an “unacceptable statement” following a cross-burning in front of the black cultural center, members of a black fraternity presented the administration with a ten-point plan to “combat racism at Purdue.” These points included: having the president of the university take a more proactive stance on racism; adopting “official procedures for addressing complaints of racial harassment”; ensuring full legal action would be taken against people caught committing an act of racial harassment; the formation of a task group to study racism at Purdue; a more active police force with respect to investigating acts of racial harassment; a larger recruitment of minority students, faculty, and staff; programs to retain minority students, faculty, and staff; more funding for minority programs; mandatory diversity courses in the curriculum; and the administration’s sponsorship of a “forum on the divestment of university funds from South Africa.”
Parts of this article stand out as having a more comfortable place in a bygone era, with the issue sparked by a burning cross. It is shocking enough that more than once when reading through the article one might forget that they’re reading an article from just under thirty years ago! The article speaks to the same style of racism in the North that Martin Luther King Jr. found so difficult to fight in Chicago twenty years prior, with a similar sense that, while it may not be doing anything that is overtly racist and illegal, Purdue’s administration still fostered behavior that set people back based on their ethnicity with implications of the administration allowing for less punishment than normal for racial harassment and a police force that spent less time than warranted on cases involving racial harassment.
Interestingly, while a few of the points raised in the article are well defined and obviously useful, with the clear demand that racial harassment be met with the full force of the law or the clear request for a larger recruitment of minority students, staff, and faculty (something that would definitely create a more diverse university and would likely help make the university a more inclusive place), others are either vague (like the request for official procedures to address complaints), feel useless (the request of a token “proactive stance”), or confusing to an uninformed reader who didn’t know that Purdue was in some way investing in South Africa during apartheid.
The most interesting thing about these demands is not that a few elements in their plan contain vague rhetoric that is hard to determine success from, but that it is very similar in style to other lists given by modern protestors of similar issues. When compared to the list of demands posted last year on www.thedemands.org by Purdue students protesting racism at their university, you see extremely similar demands calling for: more diversity in students and faculty, a call for a diversity-based curriculums, more effective policing, and (of course) a proactive stance from the president. To me this is the part that is actually interesting, if not shocking: despite thirty years, black students at Purdue (and at universities around the nation) are still fighting for many of the same things. This creates a fantastic image of what life was like in twentieth-century minority communities by showing that it was unsettlingly similar to twenty-first century life. Sure it is less obvious (there were not any cross-burnings on campuses last year), but the same problems exist, for better or (much more likely) for worse.