An e-mail circulated late Monday evening by the Independent Party of the Yale Political Union roused tempers among members of student cultural organizations, spurring a vociferous debate over the issue of racial self-segregation on campus.
Members of cultural groups reacted to an Independent Party e-mail publicizing its Tuesday evening debate on the topic “Resolved: Yale Policies Perpetuate Racism,” which some misinterpreted as an endorsement of the idea, though party leaders later clarified that the topic was meant to spark discussion, not to take a position. The debate attracted one of the largest audiences of the year for a YPU party debate — including a significant contingent of cultural organization members — and many attendees said the events of the past two days show how tense the campus has grown about racial issues.
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The initial e-mail invitation, which was sent by Carmen Lee ’09, the party’s chief whip, encouraged dialogue on the resolution and stated, “The unsightly pimples of self-segregation and racial stereotypes are hidden under a thick veneer of cultural houses and Cultural Connections.” Lee said the words of the e-mail, which were meant to be funny and sarcastic, were mistakenly construed as attacks on the Yale cultural centers and programs. In response, several cultural groups circulated the e-mail among their members, urging them to come to the debate to stop the event from taking place. After Lee sent a second explanatory e-mail, members of different cultural groups attended the debate as participants, not protestors.
Jay Schweikert ’08, the chairman of the Independent Party of the Union, said he thinks the student response to the e-mail exposed Yalies’ heightened sensitivity to issues involving race. But Schweikert said he welcomed the participation of cultural groups in helping to tackle a complicated issue.
“We wanted to address the exact issues these groups wanted to address,” he said. “A little controversy can be good.”
The Independent Party — whose motto is “Hear all sides” — held its debate in the Pierson Common Room. Attended by more than 100 students, the debate centered on the issue of whether cultural centers and Yale-sponsored pre-orientation programs like Cultural Connections unintentionally encourage self-segregation along racial lines.
Several students at the debate said they believe the administration has turned a blind eye to the racial divide on campus, reacting only when necessary, as when the Yale Herald, the Yale Record and the Rumpus recently published racially inflammatory pieces. Many students called on the University to take a more active role in promoting the events at the cultural houses and encouraging non-minority students to enroll in programs like Cultural Connections.
Noah Mamis ’08, speaking in support of the affirmative position in the debate, said Cultural Connections encourages isolation among students of different ethnicities even before freshmen begin their four years at Yale, and that cultural houses unwittingly contribute to this institution of a “monolithic culture.”
“Students start off with a sense of it being minorities versus the others,” he said. “And then they go even further by separating into their specific minority groups.”
But Max Rhodes ’09 said during the debate that he believes the administration works very hard to combat racism, but the real effort must come from Yale students themselves.
“The fact that you don’t feel comfortable is not Yale’s problem, it’s your problem,” he said.
Josh Williams ’08, who attended Cultural Connections as a freshman and who has worked as a program aide for two years, said he does not think school programs are fostering segregation, but that it is the students themselves who elect to shy away from those of different ethnicities. Williams said he has seen the pre-orientation program grow more diverse in the past few years and hopes to see more white students choose to enroll. Williams recently helped found the Coalition for Campus Unity.
Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said although she understands the concern that Yale cultural orientation programs encourage division among students, she thinks these programs — including Cultural Connections — actually contribute to a healthy campus climate.
“I’ve heard that concern being levied,” Trachtenberg said. “[Cultural Connections] is a very positive program as far as I’m concerned. … I have not seen that it has created more divisions.”
Students who attended the debate, which ran late into the night, ultimately resolved that cultural houses and other Yale-sponsored programs are not inherently self-limiting, but that many students do not take enough initiative to integrate themselves. They also concluded that the University is not taking adequate action to encourage students to capitalize on the campus’ diversity.
Lee said the Independent Party typically holds one high-profile and controversial debate per semester that is well-attended by different student organizations. Last year, the party’s spotlighted debate topic was “Resolved: Activism is a Better Use of Students’ Time than Debate.”