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Not Quite a Post-Racial Society

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The 14th annual MLK Jr. Brunch on Monday kicked off a week of Ohio University events in commemoration of the late civil-rights leader and the legacy he left behind.

“I would say people walked away changed and that’s what we want to do. We want to spark change,” said Brandon Chestnut, co-director of educational programming of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the first African-American student organization founded at Ohio University. The fraternity began organizing the brunch 14 years ago.

This is Mary Kate Gallagher’s fifth year attending the brunch.

“This was one of the first university events I’ve been to, and it just moved me, so I’ve come back,” she said.

She agreed that the brunch inspires change.

“This is a really awesome way for people to examine themselves. … It helps me to self-reflect,” Gallagher said.

Derrick Holifield, president of Alpha Phi Alpha, began the brunch with a booming spoken-word performance, speaking of “a nation that spells ‘united,’ but is divided by color.” OU President Roderick McDavis followed with a call to service.

Keynote speaker Fredrick Harris, a Columbia University political science professor who specializes in race politics, spoke about the writer and civil-rights activist James Baldwin and his idea of “the house that race built.”

“Baldwin…never let up holding a mirror to America and reminding it that America is the house that race built,” Harris said. “Inequities persist. America’s public schools remain as racially segregated as they were a generation ago, and the racial wealth gap has widened considerably in the past decade despite the rise of the largest black middle class in American history.”

According to a Pew Research Center study based on 2009 government data, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households.

Harris also pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision made last June that “weakened affirmative action.” In the decision, the court sent the case back to a lower court, saying that it hadn’t reviewed the university admissions policy in question in a strict enough manner.

According to the decision, the courts need to more closely scrutinize affirmative-action policies. For example, the policy must be for a limited amount of time.

Chestnut said that though he feels OU is diverse, “efforts could be enhanced a little bit more.”

In 2012, about 4.8 percent of the student population was black. White students made up 79.6 percent of the population.

“OU is a predominately white school where there’s a lack of understanding between races,” said graduate student Christina Johnson, who was attending her first MLK Jr. brunch on Monday.

Students at OU are “for sure” segregated, she said.

Junior Lauren Holland, a member of the Black Student Cultural Programming Board, which partnered with Alpha Phi Alpha to host the brunch, said that she wished to see more non-black students at the brunch “so they can see what we are doing.”

To Gallagher, the event means people opening up about race.

“What I love is the way people talk openly about what’s going on at the university,” she said.

In conclusion to his speech, Harris imagined what the late Baldwin would have to say in this day and age: “Baldwin…is wondering, perhaps still asking when, if ever, the stranger will be fully embraced in the house that was built by race.”

More events commemorating King will take place throughout the week, including a screening of the documentary “Gideon’s Army” at the Athena Cinema, 20 S. Court St., on Tuesday; an open-mic night centering on social justice at Casa Nueva, 6 W. State St., on Thursday; and a service day on Saturday. For more information on the events, click here.

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