• August 23, 2019

TEXAS VIEW: Rice University confronting racism - Odessa American: Texas Opinion

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TEXAS VIEW: Rice University confronting racism

THE POINT: Rice’s task force is the right move, but it also must increase African American enrollment.

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Posted: Tuesday, July 16, 2019 2:30 am

To escape the past, you must confront it. That’s the reality Rice University accepted in recently announcing that it would join the growing number of institutions, cities, even nations that have decided to acknowledge the worst in their histories instead of trying to brush it aside.

The university said it would have a task force in place by the fall semester to examine its “past with respect to slavery, segregation, and racial injustice” and explore “how that history may continue to inform and shape the present state of the university.”

That goal, expressed in a joint statement by Rice President David W. Leebron and provost Marie Lynn Miranda, is not only laudable, it is necessary. With it comes the implied admission that the university may need to take additional steps to remedy inequities rooted in its history of racial discrimination.

That history began with the university’s founding in 1912 with funds provided by real estate tycoon William Marsh Rice, who mandated in its charter that the school be for “whites only.”

The university got that part of the charter voided in 1964, arguing in court that segregation made it ineligible for research grants and federal funding. But racism persisted even after the school admitted its first black student in 1965.

Old Rice yearbooks examined after a scandal earlier this year involving Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam when he was a student at Eastern Virginia Medical School showed photos of white Rice students in blackface, wearing Ku Klux Klan garb and otherwise making fun of African Americans.

A subsequent editorial in Rice’s student newspaper, the Thresher, said blackface photos could be found in Rice yearbooks as late as 1988, which meant 17 of Rice’s 26 trustees now attended the university “during a time when overt racism was considered appropriate.”

Whether that made a difference in how Rice treated students, faculty, staff, or others is what the task force will explore. It will search for remedies where appropriate. Anyone with suggestions as to how the university should proceed may contact Leebron by emailing him at president@rice.edu .

The university is following the lead of other institutions. In February, Georgetown University students voted to increase their tuition to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves sold to pay off the 230-year-old school’s debt.

The question of reparations has become a topic in the current presidential campaign, with several Democratic candidates saying they support the idea. You can’t get to reparations, however, without talking about slavery, segregation and why this country has not been successful in dealing with the racism that remains.

There have been noble attempts to force us as a nation to look at our past to determine the right course for our future. The latest example is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a 6-acre site with 800 6-foot steel monuments dedicated to the thousands of men and women lynched in the United States.

Too often America’s history has been ugly, but it’s our history. The best way to deal with it is to admit what we did wrong, make amends for our mistakes and figure out how to never travel that road again.

Rice University is doing that by organizing a racial injustice task force. One of its first assignments should be to improve the school’s African American enrollment, which is only about 5% of its nearly 7,000 students. That could help the ripple Rice has started turn into a wave.

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