Erase Racism as a Goal at the University and beyond

By: Neil H. Donahue, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs

On Wednesday evening, June 7th, I attended the gala banquet of Erase Racism in the Garden City Hotel. The organization does tremendous work to highlight the problems of racism and segregation on Long Island that exist in ways and to degrees that most inhabitants of the Island probably don’t wish to think about. At each place setting in the main dining area, we each had not only the program for the evening but also a new infographic of various statistics, stunning (in two different senses) both in its beautiful visual presentation and in the statistics themselves. The beautiful presentation highlighted an ugly reality – to wit, that Long Island is more intensely segregated by school districts than it was 12 years ago, even though diversity overall on Long Island has increased.

The stark reminder of that seemingly entrenched social reality did not undermine, rather more reinforced, the strong sense of solidarity in the room. I sat at a Hofstra table with colleagues from Hofstra: Suzanne Pike from the Provost’s Office; Benita Sampedro (Romance Languages and Literatures), Santiago Slabodsky (Religion/Jewish Studies) and Jonathan Lightfoot (Teaching, Learning, Technology), all co-directors of Hofstra’s new Center for Race, Culture and Social Justice; Annette Davis from Graduate Admissions and Carol Carter from the Law School (both members of the Center's Board), and Athelene Collins from the Cultural Center; and Gillian Atkinson, Associate Director of Intercultural Engagement & Inclusion; and others. Larry Levy and Chris Niedt from the Center for Suburban Studies had their own table nearby, so Hofstra was well and proudly represented, even before Sofia Pertuz, Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students spoke from the podium to help convene the proceedings in her role as one of two Benefit co-chairs and member of the Board of Directors.

I’m glad and proud that Hofstra had such a prominent presence in support of this wonderful organization, whose remarkable president and founder, Elaine Gross, has made Erase Racism into a powerful voice on Long Island, like her own, for the rights of minorities, whether racial, ethnic, religious or other, and a site of cooperation, collaboration and friendship across lines that should never divide but unite. The theme of the evening, not officially, but unofficially, seemed to me to be the importance of voice to speak out, both with and against, in friendship and protest, and always in constructive dialogue. The special event of the evening gave a vivid illustration of the principle.

Awards of appreciation went to stalwart supporters and community leaders, including familiar names to the Hofstra community, like Amy Hagedorn (posthumous, accepted by her daughter) and Joan Saltzman (present) and Dr. Isma Chaudhry, President of the Islamic Center of Long Island (with an Masters of Public Health from Hofstra!), who accepted for that organization, but the culmination of the evening came with a dialogue between two long-time Long Islanders, Reverend Dr. Calvin Butts III, president of SUNY-Old Westbury and renowned civil rights activist, and Frederick K. Brewington, Esq., a civil-rights attorney for decades on Long Island in the struggle for social justice in the courtroom. The two sat on a platform in gold parlor chairs framed against the ornately patterned gold wallpaper, heavy columns and crystal chandeliers by two large portraits of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

On cue, the sound system produced recordings of speeches by each of these temperamentally different civil rights leaders, and then the two speakers engaged in direct dialogue in character about how best to respond to the outrages of racism.

Mr. Brewington’s Malcolm X vented anguish and anger at the slow pace of change and, inflamed by each new outrage, voiced a desire for action, even violence if necessary, while Rev. Butts’ MLK counseled dialogue, while noting definite progress and positive change over time, though frustrating in its pace and setbacks. In the end, Malcolm X’s remonstrations served as a lively foil for MLK’s more restrained nonviolent advocacy, but the dialogue between the two incorporated both positions into a shared commitment fueled by heartfelt lament and courageous conviction. And then, in the end, the real friendship of the two actors emerged from behind the historical dialogue and brought the history of this debate into the present in a ringing and moving endorsement of the organization and its mission. Elaine Gross joined them on stage and also introduced a participant in the Greensboro boycott (sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter) in 1960, who was in the audience, bringing the history of civil rights from multiple generations into the room and onto the platform. It was a powerful and inspiring moment.

Hofstra was very present in these proceedings and has to take this inspiration, the emotion and the statistics, and continue to work, on its own and with this and other organizations, to increase diversity, tolerance and understanding on campus, on the Island and in the nation. The evening presented many models of outstanding commitment.


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