Project 500 lingers, influences UI race relations

By Paolo Cisneros

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series examining the issue of race on campus during the 40th anniversary of Project 500, a program that brought more than 500 black students to the University in 1968. Jorge Chapa has spent his career researching race relations at universities nationwide, but when he came to Urbana in 2006, he was shocked with what he saw.Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series examining the issue of race on campus during the 40th anniversary of Project 500, a program that brought more than 500 black students to the University in 1968.

Jorge Chapa has spent his career researching race relations at universities nationwide, but when he came to Urbana in 2006, he was shocked with what he saw.

“I was amazed at how much tension there was,” he said.

Chapa, who serves as director of the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society, said racially-themed Greek parties and the Chief Illiniwek controversy made the University’s situation volatile.

Now, though, the waters appear to have calmed and Chapa said the University is once again in a position to continue improving its racial climate.

Still, problems exist and the potential for race-related turmoil remains an issue the University cannot afford to ignore, said Anna Gonzalez, vice chancellor for student affairs.

George West, senior in LAS and president of the Central Black Student Union, acknowledges that the atmosphere on campus is mostly tranquil. However, he believes students often segregate themselves.

Members of any given racial group tend to spend their time with people who look like them, he said.

“There’s not really a sense of community here,” he said. “People don’t get along.”

On a deeper level, West said he believes the University experience is fundamentally different for students of color.

“One problem that all minorities face is the feeling of isolation,” he said. “The higher you get in education, the less and less people you see who look like you.”

According to University records, Caucasian students far outnumber other racial groups for the fall 2008 semester.

Of American students on campus, 24,767 consider themselves white, followed by 4,835 Asian, 2,524 black, 2,504 Latino, and 120 Native American.

Gonzalez is responsible for handling issues related to diversity at the University. She said that while the racial disparity is a concern for the administration, there are other matters that are equally as imperative to improving the quality of life for all students.

Greek troubles

Ian Sassano, sophomore in Business, said the University’s Greek system promotes segregation among the student body by creating cliques that often view themselves in a narcissistic light.

“I think this campus is pretty racially segregated, and I think the Greek system makes it that way,” he said.

Sassano’s belief stems from various racially-themed parties that have taken place on campus in recent years.

A 2006 exchange between the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity was unofficially dubbed “Tacos and Tequila” by those who attended.

According to students who were present at the party, some attendees donned ponchos and sombreros while others dressed as landscapers and pregnant women.

More recently, the Triangle Fraternity hosted a theme party during the spring 2008 semester in which residents of one floor wore gold chains, baggy clothes and carried plastic guns in keeping with their “Compton” theme.

Despite such events, Roger Steele, president of the Black Greek Council, believes the Greek community can be involved in improving the racial atmosphere on campus.

He said perceptions of exclusiveness stem from a lack of communication and planning between the four Greek councils.

“One side doesn’t know what’s (happening) on the other side,” he said.

Interfraternity Council president and senior in psychology Peter Logli acknowledged that actions by the Greek community have led to racial tension in the past, but said the four Greek councils are working to make the system more welcoming for all University students.

“We’re working on eliminating some of the precedents we’ve set in the past,” he said. “I think our next step is getting more people to participate.”

Logli said that while the perception of the Greek community as unwelcoming to minorities exists, the racial environment on campus is complex.

“It’s a campus-wide issue,” he said. “I think we all want to be united as students on this campus and on a larger level as human beings.”

Minorities today

Minority enrollment at the University has surged since the 1968 implementation of Project 500, the initiative that brought more than 500 black students to campus. Even so, the current student body falls short of closely representing the racial makeup of the state.

According to records compiled by the University and the United States Census Bureau, black students make up about 6 percent of the student body while the entire population of Illinois is about 15 percent black.

Likewise, 6 percent of University students consider themselves Latino, compared to 14.7 percent of Illinois residents who do the same.

The student and state populations do not match because the University does not recruit or admit students based on racial quotas, said Stacey Kostell, director of undergraduate admissions.

Instead, the University tries to attract a racially diverse student body by developing relationships with students and counseling staffs in Illinois high schools with varying racial populations, she said.

Nameka Bates, director of the Bruce D. Nesbitt African-American Cultural Center, applauds the University for attempting to recruit more students of color, but said retaining current minority students should be a bigger priority.

She said some students still feel out of place because of a lack of relevant programming and, in the case of black students, a cultural center that is in need of repair.

“We have to make sure that our students that are here are getting what they need before we can talk about bringing more students in,” she said.

How to do that, though, is unclear.

Steele believes it comes down to creating better links within the student body.

He said he does not see racial hostility on campus. Instead, students are often hesitant to go outside of their social groups.

“There’s a lack of effort,” he said.

Cultural resources

Today, the University is home to four cultural centers in addition to a number of social and ethnic studies programs.

Adele Lozano is the director of La Casa Cultural Latina, the Latino cultural center on campus. She said her organization serves as a means through which Latino students can feel accepted.

Despite an increase in Latino students and faculty of more than 11 percent since 1970, Lozano said students still don’t always feel comfortable.

She cited the portraits that line the walls of the Illini Union as one example. The vast majority of those photographs feature white individuals.

“That sends a really strong message about who belongs,” she said.

Lozano believes centers such as La Casa can help bridge the gap between families of students as well.

A large percentage of Latino parents speak Spanish more fluently than English, creating a need for an organization that makes them feel like part of the University community, she added.

On his part, Chapa said he believes racial tension this semester is at its lowest level since he arrived on campus more than two years ago.

This semester, for instance, he has yet to hear any discourse about the retirement of Chief Illiniwek.

“There hasn’t been any event that has really exacerbated the issue or created tension,” he said.

Still, he believes that as American society grows increasingly racially diverse, the University has an obligation to continue its efforts at creating a more accepting environment.

“The student body changes substantially every year,” he said. “The University needs to decide which side of that it wants to be on.”

Melissa Silverberg contributed to this report.