Ryan Carey Mahoney: Tiptoeing around race at GW

At the corner of 22nd and H streets lies a bronze plaque that passersby often overlook. In fact, many don’t even know it exists.

The plaque honors abolitionist Leonard A. Grimes, whose house – which was at one point on our campus – was one of many stops on the underground railroad during the 19th century. Growing up a free black man, Grimes developed a passion for equality because of the atrocities committed against slaves near his home.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Grimes and the issue of race on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Thousands poured onto the National Mall on Wednesday, but I wasn’t struck with a sense of optimism and hope about how far we’ve come.

The topic of race came up in my very first week of classes when I attended the initial session of my race and minority relations course. The professor opened by asking for our reactions to the George Zimmerman verdict read earlier this summer. Everyone in the class looked befuddled, wondering what the professor expected to hear.

Most gave answers that tiptoed around race. Several students opted for cookie-cutter responses, like “We may not like the outcome, but at least justice was served,” or spouted off generic commentary that avoided a larger engagement in these race-based issues.

Like the memorial to Grimes, race and diversity have found a minimal place at GW, pushed out of the spotlight and accepted as a given without being critically analyzed.

The nation has come a long way since the civil rights movement, but inequalities persist. And though it may be hard to hear, the same is true for our University.

In a city that is only 35 percent white, GW stands out with a relative lack of racial diversity. GW – with its high price tag and relatively few low-income students who receive Pell grants – enrolls a student body where only 7.2 percent identify as black, and 7.3 percent as Hispanic. This does not fit into Dr. King’s vision for diversity.

When looking at diversity of faculty, the numbers are more dismal: Only 9 percent are black or Hispanic. And a staggering majority of professors are white.

Of course, colleges across the country, especially private ones like GW, struggle to ensure racial diversity among faculty and student bodies.

And on campus, GW does offer resources to black students, including the Multicultural Student Services Center and myriad Greek organizations, cultural clubs and heritage awareness groups. But most of these groups seem to be isolated from the student body as a whole, with little exchange of ideas between different groups.

Anniversaries are typically positive events – opportunities to reflect on progress and substantive achievements. But on this anniversary, I don’t feel the seemingly ubiquitous sense of optimism that others do. Race still seems unaddressed, unacknowledged and in the shadows.

After all, we shouldn’t need a momentous anniversary – or even a seemingly forgotten plaque on campus – to address the issue of diversity.

Ryan Carey Mahoney, a senior majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet columnist.

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