Thursday, April 13, 2006


by Erik Owomoyela, DI Opinions editor

Wednesday's 1,000 Man March, by UI students calling for greater diversity, harked back to the glory days of activism, back when our parents (or their big brothers and sisters, anyway) were our age - a form of revolutionary nostalgia that isn't too unusual. Of course, for all their passion, the 1960s were not a very good decade to be alive, as evidenced in part by the number of Americans who didn't survive it. For better or worse, many causes of that generation don't translate too well into ours.

Diversity is important, and especially here. The UI lies in a very homogenous region, and the school should seek to widen students' perspectives both in and out of the classroom. But diversity is a hard thing to quantify. Many programs focus on race, aiming to seek and support non-white students to attain their goals. There is value in this approach, but it is an imperfect solution at best. At worst, it reinforces one of the core ideas that so ingrained racism into the minds of many Americans not so long ago.

Many ethnic groups in America do share a distinct culture, which is in part thanks to our sordid history of segregation and evidence of how far we still have to go. But even this is simplistic. My father is a naturalized citizen who immigrated from Nigeria; his ancestors weren't slaves, and he received an elite education courtesy of the British Empire. From a cultural standpoint, he could hardly have less in common with the likes of, say, Al Sharpton.

Indeed, this can get pretty silly. The New York Times wrote on Tuesday about a developing trend with families using DNA tests to see if they could claim minority status whatever perks come with it. Naturally, if you need a DNA test to know that you're a minority, then you probably weren't disadvantaged much because of your race. But even if you don't need the genetic code, your appearance alone doesn't determine your culture.

Back in high school, every now and again I would head to the district office for a special event aimed at African American students from all four high schools. (This was Lincoln, Neb., so there weren't many of us.) It was well-intended and helpful for some; if I had faced intolerance growing up, it might have helped me as well. Instead, it felt like a day focused on how I was different from the people I had grown up around, based on an artificial and anachronistic distinction.

The dream of many civil-rights pioneers was a world where the color of one's skin did not define them. Their movement wasn't about diversity - it was about rights. Race-based programs have helped ease the tensions that ruled those times, but real diversity can't be measured that simply; and where we succeed in wiping out racial barriers, the distinction becomes nearly meaningless. It wouldn't hurt to start taking this into account.

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