Race and Ethnicity: At a Crossroad

Wading into a sea of mainly Black faces on the South African campus where former President Nelson Mandela and other lions of the anti-apartheid movement once studied gave Ernesha Webb Mazinyo (B.S. ’95) a rarefied jolt of pride. 

“It’s a historically Black university, and that’s a very nice thing,” said Webb Mazinyo, who studied microbiology at Howard. In 2012, she transferred her doctoral studies in public health administration from New York’s Columbia University, where she’d earned a master’s in public health, to South Africa’s University of Fort Hare

Fort Hare’s roll call of former students inspired awe indeed said Webb Mazinyo, a Los Angeles native. Still, she couldn’t help noting the hard facts of college life in the nation where she’s lived for almost a decade, and where a White minority retains most of the wealth: Wide swaths of Blacks—75 percent of the population—aspire to be college-educated. But just a fraction of them can afford a college degree. And college degrees are roundly considered an optimal path out of poverty.

“In the current climate in South Africa—which mirrors what’s happening in the States or anywhere in the African Diaspora where people are rallying against being a minority or being restricted because of their race—there’s an awakening,” said Webb Mazinyo, an executive for a South African health, education and business development foundation partly funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Agency for International Development. 

She continued: “This generation of South African students recognizes that righting the wrongs of apartheid is work that is still being done. They know that if they do not have access to education and economic opportunity and the freedom those things bring… that they are still victimized by racism.” 

So, those students, would-be students and others in a place still recovering from what apartheid wrought do daily tackle the topic of race, she said. It’s an unabashed conversation. For those reluctant to hear what’s being said, it’s sometimes an uncomfortable one.

 

Race a Topic of Priority at HU

Likewise, talk about race on this side of the world also can be hard. So, too, can discussions about gender, sexual preference and identity and other aspects of diversity in a steadily diversifying America. That’s part of the reason Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick (B.S. ’92; M.D. ’94; MBA ’11), a practicing surgeon and Howard’s president, has made explorations of race, race history, racial tensions, gender parity—and how to plow through all of that—a topic of priority.

 “It’s not about only the color of your skin … The one thing that must continue to bind us is our humanity,” said Frederick, during the fall 2015 Beyond the Dialogue roundtable on race and other diversity issues. 

For that discussion, a shortlist of current Howard students, students from neighboring institutions and those institutions’ presidents pondered an array of subject matter: How to ensure that college professorial ranks reflect the racial composition of college classrooms. The role of universities in preparing graduates for an increasingly diverse global community that, in notable ways, struggles with the whole notion of diversity. How to groom graduates-to-be from Howard, where roughly 90 percent of students are Black, to be leaders on race and related diversity issues.

“As far as diversity goes, we’re in a special atmosphere,” Brittany Johnson, Howard’s undergraduate student trustee, said at that roundtable. Given Howard’s mix of American, international, well-off and low-income, Black, White, brown, yellow and other students, everyone can weigh in on what diversity is and how to maximize those differences to do good, rather than harm, she suggested. Every student should engage in that work.

Former Howard student Ta-Nehisi Coates, an award-winning journalist and author, would agree.

“It’s really about respecting different people’s traditions,” said Coates, winner of such coveted awards as the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant.” He attended Howard from 1993 through 1999 and has returned several times, including as the February 2016 Charter Day speaker.

From Paris, where the Baltimore native is on sabbatical from his usual post as a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, Coates has been watching the goings-on back home. He’s followed the ongoing examinations of police and criminal justice system abuses, Black student protests over what they say is racistdriven mistreatment on mainly White campuses and so forth. 

As Coates watched news reports, he tried to empathize with those protesting Black students.

“There was this whole thing that ‘People haven’t made room for me,’” said Coates, citing what he believes those students must have been feeling. They were “going into a place where people don’t really value them.”

“Howard was the place where I felt at home,” said Coates, who won a National Magazine Award for “Fear of a Black President” and a George Polk Award for “The Case for Reparations.” Both appeared in The Atlantic.

But those protesting students “didn’t feel at home. Howard was the exact contrast … I came back to the University at the beginning of the “Between the World and Me” book tour and spent the day with a group of young Howard students. They were some of the sharpest, not kids, [but] people … with their caliber of questions. They were so far ahead.”

Candid talk of everyday racial realities can sharpen and propel students, said Yanick Rice Lamb (M.B.A. ’05), chair of Howard’s School of Communications and co-founder of, among other digital media enterprises, Fierce for Black Women, an online news site.

“Diversity is built into our curriculum,” Rice Lamb, formerly an editor at such national publications as The New York Times and Child magazine, said of her department. There, instruction also includes frank talk about the declining tally of people of color in the traditional, for-profi t news industry, which has shrunk substantially in this age when so much is available online for free. Journalists of color have been disproportionately hard hit by layoffs, hiring freezes and such. 

“As African Americans,” she added, “we’ve had to deal with a lot of different things in this country and in this workforce. We make sure students are aware of that dynamic in the workplace … But also we make sure we’re practicing what we preach in terms of coverage [and ensuring] that they have a mix of ages, races and geographic representation in their work. Particularly in journalism, it’s important to refl ect the world.”

For President Frederick, it’s imperative that Howard’s students acutely see diversity, far and near. It’s imperative that they examine their own views about diversity. “All of us have unconscious bias that we don’t realize … We must know our history in order to really advance our future,” Frederick, a native of Trinidad & Tobago, said during that roundtable talk last fall. “Howard University is one of the great romantic stories in higher education … [Just] because we’re an HBCU doesn’t mean we always get everything right.” That includes getting some things wrong about race. To get it right, that dialogue must continue, he said.

 

From South Africa to the Mecca: ‘We have to talk about this race stuff’

From her perch in South Africa—where she fi rst lived temporarily with Howard alum Richard Lee Wilkin III (B.A. ‘01), who happens to be White and, at the time, was in the Peace Corps—Webb Mazinyo echoes those ideals. The discussion of racial and class diversity and uplift has, in South Africa, progressed to a point where some observers project that at least some Black South Africans will have their college educations fully paid for.

“The #Fees Must Fall campaign has young people marching in the streets,” she said. “They know not having a college degree perpetuates this underclass. It’s systematic and systemic. That’s why we have to talk about this race stuff … The young people are saying ‘transformation at schools,’ where the professors are all still White. We believe change is plausible, that it is coming.”

For his part, said Wilkin, Webb Mazinyo’s friend and former team member in Howard Campus Pals, Howard helped prepare him to be a change-maker in the quest for race progress. Now the principal of an all-Chinese high school in China, he has helped some of his Asian students win admission to Johannesburg, South Africa-based African Leadership Academy for 15- to 22-year-olds. He got involved with that project after trading the Peace Corps for a spot at the head of the classroom in an international school in Pretoria, one of South Africa’s two capital cities. 

“I’m an educator,” said Wilkin, from rural Hustle, Va., population 471. He applied, back then, to fi ve HBCUs. He’d decided while in high school—after heatedly telling his history teacher that Christopher Columbus could never have discovered a place where people already lived—to major in history and help others “unlearn” so much wrong teaching.

“These Chinese kids,” continued Wilkin, father of two biracial children and husband to a Black South African, “land in the airport in Jo’burg and they are the only Chinese kids there … A kid comes back from that with this unique perspective. It gets these kids thinking about themselves outside of the homogeneous box that is China. It’s brought a global perspective.” 

Broadening folks’ perspectives is a central aim of frank talk about race, racial disparities and how to bridge those gaps and what, as fully human beings, differing races hold in common, suggested Dontae Bell, executive president of Howard’s College of Arts & Sciences Student Council. “We discussed what race is,” he said, as President Frederick’s roundtable discussion wound down. “Race is dynamic … We want to encourage our peers: ‘What are we going to do when we leave this room?’ I’d encourage everyone to remember what we’ve discussed here.”

 

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