Institutionalized racism in student government

By Alana Goodman

Editor’s note: Due to a production error, some terms in this column were incorrectly modified in the editing process. The corrected version is below. We at The Daily Collegian apologize for the error and promise to our readers and writers that we will continue our commitment to putting out the best product that we can and will avoid such errors in the future.

Racism is alive and well at the University of Massachusetts. And I’m not talking about the hysterical, trumped-up allegations of racism made by people like Henry Louis Gates and Jimmy Carter at the mere mention of legitimate criticism about Barack Obama’s policies. I mean clear-cut, systematic, institutionalized racism.

Just look at our Student Government Association (SGA) By-Laws. As we prepare to swear in our elected representatives to the SGA Senate next week, UMass students should be aware that 13 percent of our SGA Senators will not have even competed in Tuesday’s elections. Instead, they will be appointed to their positions before the election results even come in, solely on the basis of skin color.

This portion of the Senate is appointed by a registered student organization (RSO) called the African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Caucus (no relation to this columnist). Only minority students who fit one of those four racial categories– or other students who the Caucus approves as “minority allies”– are considered eligible for these Senate seats.

Proponents of the ALANA Caucus will argue that anyone can be a member of the group and have access to its appointed seats, and they may be right– technically. On paper, RSO’s like the Caucus are open to all fee-paying UMass undergrads. But while most RSO’s actively work to recruit a large membership, the ALANA Caucus doesn’t; you will almost never see their members “tabling” in the Student Union or advertising their meetings to the general public. They seem to prefer their organization small and close-knit, and why shouldn’t they? Unlike other RSO’s, ALANA’s annual funding isn’t contingent on the size of its membership – the SGA’s “ALANA Caucus Reserves Fund” earmarks an exorbitant $10,000 for the Caucus each year.

I’ve often wondered how I, too, could join the elusive ALANA Caucus, so I recently skimmed over a copy of its RSO Charter Membership requirements. Turns out it’s a bit more complicated than joining, say, the UMass Ski and Board Club.

The easiest way to join the Caucus is to become a member of one of its “ALANA-affiliated RSO’s” – like the Haitian American Student Association – and then have that RSO elect you as one of its two delegate members of the Caucus. If you’re not fortunate enough to belong to an ALANA-affiliated RSO, but you still somehow manage to find out where and when the Caucus meetings take place, then pat yourself on the back and consider pursuing a career in espionage. Once at the meeting, you’ll then need to convince two-thirds of the Caucus to elect you as a member. Of course, you must first prove to the them that you’ve “demonstrated a commitment to [ALANA’s] goals” and “[signed] a statement of commitment to the purpose of the organization.”

According to its Charter, the Caucus’ purpose is: “Acknowledging that certain peoples have been and remain to be marginalized and underrepresented … based on racial impediments in the United States, and specifically at the University of Massachusetts Amherst … the Caucus shall promote and reflect the diverse interests of students from multi-cultural backgrounds, including but not limited to students of African, Latino/a, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native American descent.” Alternatively, I assume that signing a statement of commitment to any sermon by Rev. Jeremiah Wright will also suffice.

Once you’re a member, you’ll need to get the approval of all three ALANA Chairs before you can vote in Caucus elections. After that, you’ll finally have access to the smoke-filled room where 13 percent of the student “representatives” in the Senate are chosen.

This practice has been going on for years, and in addition to its sleaziness it’s also illegal.

In a December 23, 2003 memo, the UMass General Counsel Terence O’Malley informed former Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Mike Gargano that the Caucus seats violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents state governments from discriminating against individuals based on race or ethnicity.

“It is my opinion that the approval of the ALANA representation provision by the Board of Trustees would be unconstitutional,” wrote O’Malley. “The proposed [ALANA Caucus] amendment reserves positions in the student senate on the basis of race or ethnicity.”

On the advice of the Counsel, Gargano asked the SGA to remove the race-based appointments. Instead, the Caucus promptly branded Gargano a “racist” and held campus rallies comparing him to Satan.

In the wake of controversy surrounding the issue, the illegal race-based seats were never removed.

But now the subject is being broached again by the new Vice Chancellor, Jean Kim. On August 26, Kim sent a memo to SGA President Ngozi Mbawuiki asking that the race-based seats be removed by March 1, 2010. Hopefully Mbawuiki complies and puts an end to the Caucus’ exclusion of students who don’t possess the “right” skin color or the “correct” mindset.

It was nearly 55 years ago, after all, when Rosa Parks stood up against race-based seating on public busses. But today, right here at UMass, seats of a different kind are still being allocated on the basis of race and ideology. It wasn’t right then, and it isn’t right now.

Alana Goodman is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]

More on this: Read SGA Outreach and Education Coordinator Sam Dreyfus’ response to Goodman’s column.