On the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the constitutionality of provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we held a panel discussion at Oglethorpe sponsored by the Black Student Caucus titled “Color Blind,” focusing on what it means to be a Black student or professor at Oglethorpe. By my count, we had close to 75 attendees, which for our small school is a very healthy turnout.
While the constitutional questions at issue with the Voting Rights Act are certainly complex, the provisions being challenged have been upheld many times by the court. Sadly, I suspect the result may be different this time around. The most discomforting thing I read from the reports of the arguments is the assertion that fifty years after the passage of the Act, the need for extra vigilance to protect the rights of minorities to vote has gone away. I wish that were the case, but I know it is not. One doesn’t have to look any further than the state of Florida to see a still-ferocious attempt to limit the turnout of voters inclined to cast their vote a certain way. Shamefully, such practices are far too prevalent in many other states, northern as well as southern.
Historically, America has largely been a culture governed by the majority — racial, ethnic and religious. Not belonging to the majority is, at best, discomforting. At its worst, being a minority has meant enslavement, internment, imprisonment, deportation, persecution. While life in America these days is much improved compared to days gone by, we are still not the land of equal opportunity and justice that we like to think. A child’s economic future is still determined to an astonishing degree by the circumstance of his or her birth. Social mobility in the United States has diminished, income inequality has dramatically increased and one’s race, of course, is still an important factor in all this.
I attended every minute of Oglethorpe’s Color Blind panel discussion and didn’t say a word. I was there to listen and didn’t know what to expect. Two hours later, I left feeling even more honored to be the President of Oglethorpe than I was before I walked in. One phrase among many that stuck with me was this: “Race is everything and race is nothing.” It is everything because being Black in America, even at Oglethorpe, impacts one’s life each and every day. And it is nothing because in the end, one’s race can never be an excuse. Yet when asked whether the faculty and students of color felt like they had a voice on campus, every one answered in the affirmative. That’s an extraordinary thing for these students and faculty to feel.
I will never pretend that life at Oglethorpe somehow insulates our students and our faculty from the reality of living in America, but last evening, my belief that we do an amazing job here of facing that reality and talking about it in non-combative ways was re-affirmed. It was a very good night for Oglethorpe.