Fear Factor: Students Discuss Underlying Drivers of Racism

by Marcia Goodrich, senior writer

Few things are scarier than change, and few emotions are more powerful than fear. Students in the summer reading seminar led Aug. 26 by humanities professor Robert Johnson batted around these and other concepts raised by the novel "Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands," with author Susan Carol McCarthy sitting in on the discussion.

The novel is the coming-of-age story of young Reesa McMahon, the daughter of an orange grower, set against an historical truth: a violent string of Klan bombings and lynchings that wracked Florida in 1951.

Florida has a reputation for palm trees and white sand beaches, but the truth is that it had more lynchings per capita than any other southern state and the Klan considered Florida to be a primary stronghold, McCarthy said. That's in part because of its history. Confederate soldiers fleeing Reconstruction sought refuge in Florida, at the time a wild and unsettled part of the country.

As the civil rights movement gained momentum, lynchings abated, but riots arose in the cities during the 1960s. What fueled the Klan violence and the riots? Johnson asked. Fear, said a student. "Who is fearful?" Johnson responded.

"Everybody." The Klan, the black community, white business owners. "After 9/11, there was fear of Middle Eastern types," said one student. Now we're afraid because of the economy, said another student, "and fear just makes it worse."

Behind all of these fears is the fear of change, McCarthy said. Back in 1951, the Klan feared that black enfranchisement was affecting the political process. "People in the power structure were afraid of losing control."

But what do we have to fear? the students asked. "Not getting our allowance for a week?" Compared to women in Afghanistan, refugees in the Sudan, "our worst day is better than their best day."

"People have always been afraid of change," said one student. That's because change produces uncertainty, McCarthy said. And the unknown, said another student.

In this all-white group, the discussion turned to perceptions of minority privilege. "It's hard when you see the advantages they have," said one. "Indians are the only ones who can own casinos." "My father said Michigan State had to accept a certain percentage of students from the UP," said another. "I wouldn't want to be accepted over someone who could do better."

Part of an education is being exposed to different points of view, McCarthy said. Bringing in students from different regions of the state provides diversity and a variety of cultural perspectives, an important part of a college education.

"How many of you have nonwhite friends?" McCarthy asked. Most hands went up. "Wonderful," she said. "You can learn so much from them."

"I love working with these kids," she said afterward. "It's my favorite part of my job." More than any generation before them, they seem to be letting go of prejudice and becoming truly color-blind. "I see them as a change-agent generation," McCarthy said.

Summer Youth by the Numbers

by John Gagnon, promotional writer

Steve Patchin, director of Youth Programs, is basking in the afterglow of a job well done.

With the conclusion of Summer Youth, he and his team are perusing parent and participant surveys that give high marks to the program.

Parents, he says, are "very excited about having their kids experience college in a controlled atmosphere."

Participants enjoy, not just the explorations, but also the makeup of the student population--the urban and rural, the local and international, and the ethnic diversity. "They mix it up and find out other people are just like them."

Even the homesick learn to like the place. "They're scared about being away from home for the first time, and they're shy. By Wednesday, they’re warmed up. On Thursday they want to be involved in everything. On Friday it's time to leave and you wouldn't believe the crying going on."

"These are very happy young people who feel good about going to a college," Patchin says.

Here are some measures of Summer Youth:

1,034--participants this year, up from 981 in 2008

23--states represented in the student group

6--countries other than the US represented (Monaco, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Columbia, Austria and Canada (Patchin says the word about SYP gets out largely via the Internet.)

118--student staff and course instructors

16--students who will sail next summer--on the three-masted ship S/V Denis Sullivan--from Bay City to campus, while learning about biology; they’ll collect water samples along the way and then use Tech labs to analyze them at the conclusion of the week.

3--the first Summer Youth courses for college credit that will be offered next year in physics, math and engineering technology. "The gates are open," Patchin says. "This is going to be big."

74--percent of parents who would like their children to attend a multi-week program offered for college credit.

29--students who participated in the National Summer Transportation Institute, which is supported by a grant from the Federal Highway Administration.

94--percent of parents who say that the Youth Program met or exceeded expectations.

89--participants in Explorations in Engineering (EIE)

47--percent of EIE students who were African American

39--percent of EIE students who were female.

65--percent of young men and women who have an increased interest in attending Michigan Tech, which, really, is the point of it all.

"We have a long way to go," Patchin concludes, "but we’re on a good roll."

New Funding

Alex Mayer (GMES) has received $249,998 from Higher Education in Development/US Agency for International Development for a project, "Enhancing the Capacity for Sustainable Forest Management in Chiapas and Oaxaca."

Equipment Fund Proposals Are Being Accepted Now

The Office of the Vice President for Research is requesting Century II Campaign Endowed Equipment (C2E2) Fund proposals for fiscal year 2009-10.

The program provides funds to purchase equipment that will have a broad, campus-wide impact and will also improve the lives of faculty, staff and students.

For further information, visit the C2E2 website here.

Submissions will be accepted until 4 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 22.

Send your original cover sheet and proposal, along with one copy, to Laurie Stark, Admin 317.

For more information, contact Cathy Banfield at 487-3043 or cmbanfie@mtu.edu .

Physics Colloquium Thursday

Bernd A. Berg, Dirac Professor of Physics at Florida State University, will present a colloquium, “Elementary Kinetics of Phase Conversion in Finite Volumes," at 4 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 3, in Fisher 139.

Sponsor of the colloquium is the physics department. For more information, contact Petra Hüntemeyer at petra@mtu.edu or Claudio Mazzoleni at 487-1226 or cmazzoleni@mtu.edu .