Monday, April 16, 2007

Letter to a College President

Dr. Wayne Clough
Georgia Institute of Technology

Dear President Clough,

I am writing to impress upon you the issue of social imagery. By social imagery I mean the images of people and their functions that we encounter as members of the Tech community. To this end it is significant that you know I am a black man. Despite the extraordinary efforts put forth by the Institute, the experience of existing on our campus can be painful for a black person. The association of black faces with their positions and functions is an assault on the ambitious, maverick minds the school is striving to develop.

I happened to see you the other day, President Clough, walking across campus like a knight-errant on a quest for honor and truth. You appeared regal in bearing, upright and forthright, with an admirable combination of confidence and humility. Your image was striking; that was my feeling. My thought, undoubtedly influenced by my feeling, was that you are the white man in charge. In contrast to your most powerful image is that of the black members of the Tech society.

When you enter the registrar's office there is an array of black women performing the necessary but mundane tasks of registration. A white woman sits in a glass office behind them literally and figuratively overseeing their functions. If you go into the bursar's office, all of the cashiers are black; however, when you look behind the veil of computers and files you find a white person sitting in the office. Upon entering the payroll office, the circumstance is repeated. In almost all of the eating facilities on campus there are hairnetted black people standing by to take your order. In glaring contrast to you Dr. Clough, are the Tech groundskeepers, an army of black and Hispanic men on their hands and knees tending to our grounds. You can often see strikingly tall African men doubled over with their heads and shoulders swallowed by trash bins as they pick out ends of garbage. You might see them as well covered in dust as they blow and vacuum the leaves in the fall. These are the social images of Georgia Tech.

Being a student of Public Policy, I would be remiss if I did not provide a contextual statistic. Professor Larry Keating of City and Regional Planning, here at Tech, helps with the context. In his book, Atlanta: Race, Class, and Urban Expansion, he provides some of the measurable differences between white and black Atlanta. Two points are particularly stunning and absolutely relevant to our image problem. In 1990, the median family income for white families in the metro Atlanta area was $88,000, for black families it was $17,000 (p. 39). Also in 1990, the median value of owner-occupied housing for white people in Atlanta was $284,000, in contrast to just $44,000 for black people (p. 62). Those disparities have increased since then. The socio-economic conditions of Atlanta necessarily impact the distribution of functions on our campus. They do not, however, mitigate the pain or the power of the imagery.

My intention is not to speak disparagingly about the people who serve in the various functions here. Work is work; bills are bills and honest labor is the bedrock of honest living. What I hope to shed light on is the yawning discrepancy of images we are faced with here. While Tech is an enormous economic benefit to Atlanta generally and its citizens particularly, there does exist this difficult unintended effect, the reinforcement of racial hierarchy through the images present at Georgia Tech.

President Clough I encourage you, in this era of American introspection and healing, to look closely at the human functioning on our campus. In so doing you will find the images of which I speak. The genteel smiles and gentle nods only thinly cloak the brutal reality of our existence here. It is a dangerous and debilitating impression to be left on all of the members of our community regardless of race or rank. As President of the Institute, please consider the impact of these images on our community and let us work to bring the fullness of human functioning to all its members.


1 comment:

Sara said...


I just wanted to share with you the experience I had as an undergraduate at William and Mary in Virginia. I grew up in the north where there were racial disparities, to be sure. But it was a shock to my system when I arrived in Williamsburg and discovered basically a lily white professoriate and student body, while virtually every member of the service staff (cafeteria workers and custodians) were black. It was so stark. And you're right, it's true at Tech as well - although the student body is a great deal more diverse here.

Anyway, just wanted you to know, it hasn't gone unnoticed by at least some of the white members of campus....