Deconstructing the Politics of Race: Set Up as Part of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Diversity Initiative, Its Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society Is Analyzing Important Issues in Race Relations

Article excerpt

During this historic presidential election campaign, remarks with racial overtones have made headlines, offending some voters and garnering sympathy from others. The candidates have been required to interpret, explain, apologize for, denounce or distance themselves from these statements and those who made them.

The missteps in the discussions about race at the highest levels of leadership in this country show the enormity and the complexity of the task faced by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society.

As a component of UIUC's diversity initiative, the university established the center five years ago with the mission of producing "vigorous scholarly and public debate on the multiple racial contexts of democracy" and analysis of the "national dynamics of racial divisions and of democratic possibilities."

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Dr. Jorge Chapa, a sociologist and demographer whose research has focused on Hispanic public policy issues, joined the center as its first permanent director in July 2006, and plans to start focusing on research that open up discussions on race to improve the overall campus climate among its more than 41,000 students, faculty and staff.

Some recent controversies have led to increased racial tensions on campus, including the end of the university mascot's Chief Illiniwek performances, a feature of the college's football and basketball games since 1926; the recent "tacos and tequila party" which featured derogatory stereotypes of Hispanics; and anecdotes that the university housing office segregates Black, Asian and Hispanic students.

"We are going to post our research, have the campus see it, respond to it and ask questions," says Chapa, adding that the aim for the effort is to raise awareness and interest and increase knowledge about issues of campus climate, an issue the university's top leadership is committed to improving.

In a yearlong project set to start this spring, Dr. Ruby Mendenhall, an assistant professor in African American studies and sociology, will lead a center-sponsored study on micro-aggression on campus.

"Micro-aggressions are subtle insults, verbal, nonverbal or visual, directed toward people of color often automatically or unconsciously," Mendenhall says.

Psychiatrist Chester Pierce coined the term "offensive mechanisms" in an essay published in 1970, which posits that the sum of these micro-aggressions "assure that the person in the inferior status is ignored, tyrannized and terrorized. …