Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Leadership for change

On Saturday, nine students from South Africa arrived at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a leadership training program geared toward promoting cross-racial unity and international networking. The two-week program will immerse South African students in the culture of UMass by exposing them to the academic, cultural and residential lives of the university’s students.

Judy **/ Flickr

Throughout the program, the students will gain a skill set that will help them confront the various difficulties South African society faces in general, as well as those challenges young people in particular encounter while dealing with racialized thinking.

One challenge is that students born after apartheid still carry on attitudes and behaviors reminiscent of that horrific period in the country’s history. However, those attitudes and behaviors could be changed through the leadership of future generations.

In this sense, the theme of “leadership for change” is not uniquely applicable to our South African visitors, but to the campus community, and to the United States, as a whole. It should be taken as a beacon of empowerment, a challenge to the community to confront any and all injustices that we may face over the course of our lives.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” As students, we should commit ourselves not only to our learning and studies, but also to sharing our acquired knowledge and vision for the future.

The United States faces many challenges today. From the struggle for marriage equality to the aftermath of the latest economic recession, our country faces several obstacles to prosperity and equality.

We are not so unlike South Africa. In fact, our struggles with institutionalized racism and prejudice parallel theirs to a significant degree. Although the causality of statistical correlations pertaining to alleged instances of institutional racism and inequality can be difficult to prove, the numbers still paint a troubling picture of racial injustice in America.

Currently, more African Americans are serving time, on probation or on parole than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the beginning of the Civil War. And as of 2004, more African American men were unable to vote due to felon disenfranchisement laws than were denied the right to vote in 1870, when the 15th Amendment, which prohibits voting discrimination on the basis of race, was ratified.

At the level of individual cases and verdicts, proving racial inequality in the criminal justice system is essentially statistically impossible; individual cases are unique and therefore make “apples to apples” comparisons of case outcomes invalid.

However, a macroscopic view of the overall system alludes to deep-seated and troubling trends of institutionalized oppression and injustice.

In the Chicago area, the proportion of African American men who have been convicted of felonies stands at nearly 80 percent. Felons are relegated to an inferior “undercaste” of American society that is denied the right to vote or participate on juries and is legally discriminated against in employment, housing and access to education and public benefits.

In the context of the South Africa’s history of racism and racial segregation, the “Leadership for Change” program may seem to be geared toward the South African students. However, given the similar struggles in the United States, the introduction of a group of motivated and impactful student leaders is a welcome addition to the campus community.

In fact, the arrival of the South Africans marks a long-overdue opportunity for the UMass community to embrace and learn from their culture and history. More importantly, the arrival of the students provides a wonderful opportunity for UMass students to challenge themselves to become agents of change, promoting unity and understanding between the variety of people and cultures that collectively constitute the UMass community.

The fact of the matter is simple: given the range of challenges facing our country and the stark similarities between the respective struggles of United States and South Africa with racism and institutional oppression, there is much we can learn from each other.

Over the course of the next two weeks, should you see a group of South African students traveling between classes or about the dorms in Northeast, make a point to introduce yourself and welcome them to campus. You’ll be glad you did!


Makai McClintock is a collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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