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The Case for Black With a Capital B

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Revisiting Race at Emerson College

by Talia Whyte

I recently had a chance to go back to my alma mater Emerson College to speak to some current students of color about the state of race relations on campus.  The four students in the video are executive board members of Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests (EBONI).  In recent years, the school has been plagued with accusations of subtle racism and lacking racial diversity among its faculty and student body.  

A couple of years ago, two black professors accused Emerson of denying them tenure because of their race.  Up until that time, Emerson College had only granted tenure to just three black professors in its 129-year history.   There have also been many claims by students of color over the years that they didn’t feel welcomed by their white counterparts on campus.  

I had a slightly different experience at the school during the late 1990s. I was a commuter student who also worked a part time job and an internship, so I spent very little time on campus when I wasn’t in class or in the library.  Since I was born and raised in Boston, I already had my own community of friends from different racial backgrounds to go to off campus.  I never personally experienced racism at Emerson, but I can understand the feeling of isolation in many classes where I was the only face of color in the room.   

Many of my black, Asian and Latino classmates at the time were not Bostonians and came from areas of the country where they were used to seeing more racial diversity.  I can only imagine what it would be like as a young person of color coming to a city that already has a reputation of being racist, let alone coming to a school in that city with a reputation for being racially insensitive.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I learned from Emerson that there had been a vast improvement in attracting a more diverse student body.  According to the school’s admissions department, nearly half of Emerson’s incoming freshman class this year comprise of Hispanics (45 percent to be exact), while black and Asian students make up 14 and 17 percent of the class, respectively.  Dr. Lee Pelton, Emerson’s new president, is also the first African-American to hold that position.  

According to the website for Emerson’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the school is also looking into “integrating and promoting diversity and inclusion into the campus strategic planning processes and initiating programs, training sessions, and discussions to foster institutional diversity awareness.”  The office has made it a priority to recruit and retain more qualified “faculty and staff from underrepresented groups.”

“This commitment reflects our belief that a diverse and inclusive learning environment enhances the quality of an Emerson education and advances the College’s mission,” the website said.