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Refocusing race relations around Grounds

WHICH is more important, comfort or diversity? Which is worse, separation or forced integration? Choosing between the lesser of two evils is never a pleasant task. But this time, there is an alternate path.

At Wednesday's State of Race Relations Forum, discussion centered on the racial divisions in upperclass University housing. Faulkner's residents are predominantly black, while Lambeth and Bice are often the apartments of choice for white students. Divisions exist in first-year dorms as well, where white students are more likely to choose McCormick Road and minorities favor Alderman.

While the consensus at the forum was that students make housing decisions based on where they feel most comfortable, students still expressed concern over the degree to which the student body self-separates by race. We don't want to give up personal comfort, but we don't want a divided University. The solution lies in making organizations around Grounds more racially diverse.

One statistic at the forum showed that University students have the most close friends of other races during their first year, and the proportion decreases each year thereafter. So the solution is not to take away first-year students' choice of housing -- a proposal which the administration has passed -- but rather to make a change that encourages interracial friendships among upperclassmen. The benefits of diverse dorms are diminished if students self-separate after their first year.

After first year, shared activities are a prime basis for friendships. There are no more random roommates or hall activities. Dorm friendships fade as students spend more time with friends from clubs and organizations with which they are involved. While this is a natural process, many of the groups on Grounds are unnaturally racially divided. The result is the self-separation that permeates our University.

Forum statistics showed that the majority of black and Asian students belong to cultural organizations, compared to only 5 percent of white students. A much greater percentage of white students than minorities belong to social fraternities and sororities. This is no surprise, but -- as the forum emphasized -- placing blame accomplishes nothing productive. Both types of organizations have to change.

For the University to be truly integrated, fraternities and sororities on Grounds have to actively recruit minorities. Cultural organizations have to appeal to students of a variety of backgrounds. If leaders of both types of groups begin to communicate with each other, they can exchange ideas about how to appeal to a broader base of students. Members of social groups should make a point to attend events sponsored by cultural groups, and vice versa. Sororities and fraternities often support each other's philanthropies but they should also attend performances and events put on by cultural groups. Likewise, members of cultural groups should support the fundraisers that social groups have for charities.

Social and cultural groups probably are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the racial makeup of their members. But that doesn't mean that anyone who is in a group somewhere in between is exempt from responsibility for promoting racial integration. Leaders of organizations with currently diverse memberships should share ways in which they attract different segments of the University population. Groups that students believe to be biased or to have insufficient minority representation, such as the Honor Committee, Student Council and The Cavalier Daily need to work to fight that perception.

Although organizations have the greatest ability to incite change, individuals and groups of friends can make a difference as well. Try out a new activity or go see an event. Attend a discussion such as Wednesday's Forum -- and then act on the proposals you hear. If all the people who expressed their dissatisfaction in the Race Relations survey actually tried to fix what they perceived as wrong, they would make a difference at the University.

If individuals and organizations make a concerted effort to become more diverse and interactive, students' friendships will follow. And when there are more interracial friendships, upperclass housing will become more diverse. It won't be an immediate change, but as it happens it won't be artificial or forced but instead by choice.

With some work, diversity can mean more than balanced racial percentages in University housing: It can be true interaction. Comfort can mean more than staying within your own circle: It can be feeling comfortable with those of other races. If we want to stop choosing between diversity and comfort, we must make the effort to have both.

(Jennifer Schaum is a Cavalier Daily Opinion editor.)

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