Multiculturalism in Brooklyn College

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

Nancy Romer

RACISM, SEXISM, BIAS-RELATED violence and the efforts to challenge these on college campuses are a major media item today. From increased racist and sexist incidents throughout the country (from President Bush on down), to anti-racist efforts described by the media as “politically correct censorship,” the focus has been on elite campuses.

The following is a report on how these issues have developed at a large, urban, working class college—Brooklyn College of the City University of New York What started out as a politically broad, faculty-dominated movement against bigotry has evolved into a more politically progressive and multiracial group, significantly led by students.

Historically, Brooklyn College has served a predominantly white, Jewish working class with certain upward mobility. Presently, 55% of its 15,000 students are Euro-Americans (mostly Jewish, Italian, and Irish, in order of representation), 45% are people of color (African-Americans split about evenly between United States and Caribbean-born; Latinos, mostly Puerto Rican; and Asian-Americans representing the smallest percentage). The vast majority of the students live with their parents, and most are employed more than twenty hours weekly at paid jobs while carrying fuiltime academic loads.

Students and faculty bring the hopes and aspirations as well as the prejudices and antagonisms that characterize the city. The constant reinforcement of these contradictions by family and community, traditional faculty, and the pressure to conform to the present competitive employment scene, all make political activism difficult at best These students do not have the leisure to investigate ideas and ideologies or test them out in the arena of college student activism, as might more privileged students from more elite colleges.

Origins of Organizing

Two years ago, when Yusuf Hawkins was murdered in Bensonhurst, a group of faculty began to organize around bias-related violence. When two Orthodox Jewish students were attacked by white anti-semites outside the campus Hillel building, the perceived need for such a movement grew considerably. We got moral and financial support from our college president to organize an Anti-Bigotry Teach-In, and quickly some progressive faculty began to reach out to potential student activists.

The purpose was to educate the college community to stand up against bigotry and to begin to create structures and programs which would have an ongoing effect in this direction. We were increasingly aware of the growing campus movement against bigotry and for a multicultural approach to curriculum transformation, and concomitantly of the increasing incidents of bigotry on college campuses.

As our organization, the Anti-Bigotry Committee, grew, we experienced an interest and urgency among faculty and students to address bias on the bases of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and disability, The broad politics allowed us to reach out to a great number of people and to raise issues both structural (for example, curriculum, security, physical access) as well as cultural (segregation of and antagonisms between student organizations).

Our first year yielded a teach-in attracting over 2500 people over two days with Julian Bond, Samuel Betances, over thirty workshops, many speakers, a student speak-out, a small concert, dinner and dance. As well, a group of primarily faculty began to work on curricular issues. We succeeded in waking up the campus to the urgency of these issues and attracted a solid group of students and faculty to continue our work into the next year.

The second year, 1990-91, witnessed a burgeoning of interest in the group, which we renamed the Multi-Cultural Action Committee (MAC) as a symbolic joining of the national multicultural movement We raised concerns over a name change that might imply a decreased attention to issues of sexism and an overemphasis on racism alone; we made sure to promote self-consciously feminist leadership from faculty and students alike. Our organizational meetings attracted up to twenty faculty and forty students and our “hard core” consisted of half that number.

We represented all the major ethnic groups on campus and thoroughly enjoyed the unusual experience of working in a truly multicultural organization. The leadership of the group also represented this great diversity with respect to race/ethnicity and gender The level of activism and dedication was clearly a groundswell. The administration continued its support for us, but the cutbacks at CUNY in general further cut into our small budget and kept our belts tight throughout.

Over the course of the second year we worked in collaboration with various ethnic clubs (the major student organizational form of the college) to put on a series of events, e.g, film screenings and discussions, collaborative homeless dinners and clothing drives. We were very active around the Persian Gulf War, helping to revive the B.C. Peace Committee with a major forum attracting 200 people on the war, cosponsoring an Anti-War rally, and organizing a student speak-out from many points of view on the war.

In planning for our second Anti-Bigotry Teach-In, we worked closely with the Womyns Action Movement, the Peace Committee, the tuition hike flghtback committee, and with various ethnic clubs and faculty to create abroad, multi-issue program. Our second Teach-In also attracted about 2500 people with an equally broad program of speakers, workshops, cultural events including a free Suzanne Vega and Flirtations concert.

Students Taking the Lead

The second teach-in was marked by sharply increased student involvement and decreased faculty involvement Students increasingly believed that these were important issues to address and that this was an open, democratically run organization which welcomed them and offered them real power in decision-making.

Conversely, faculty became more aware of the national movement of which this local group was part, they became more wary and critical and did not bring their classes to the teach-in nor contribute money to the same extent they did the previous year.

Increased student involvement and control meant that this was no longer a faculty vehicle. Its direction and actions were out of our hands and into those of a collectivity of now-activists. The more conservative forces on campus—Hillel and the Italian-American Institute (both strongly influenced by paid professional staff)—were sharply critical of our work, specifically our actions around the war, our perceived political preference for people of color, and our spotty organizational communications.

On the other hand, more progressive forces on campus became more embedded in and connected to MAC. During the Spring tuition hike uprising B.C. students along with counterparts from many other CUNY campuses, took over our administration building. About half of MAC’s “hard core” were part of the organizing for this takeover.

MAC faculty and students kept in constant touch with the protesters before, during and after the takeover, providing material support (lots of food, communications, etc.), as well as political advice on internal democratic functioning (a real problem among some of the more nationalist and chauvinist men), separating out tactics like building takeovers from strategy (building a broad-based student movement to fight the budget cuts and tuition hikes) and knowing when to walk out early in victory as opposed to staying in too long and alienating potential student and faculty allies.

MAC faculty became active in the CUNY-wide Emergency Faculty Committee to Save CUNY and organized a branch among BC faculty to work on this strategy. We worked toward a multitendency flghtback coalition that did some small but significant outreach to students, including sending a large contingent to citywide demonstrations; this marked a significant breakthrough for broadening bases and politicizing the greater student body.

Building Bridges Among Struggles

Of course there was overlap between the students and faculty in MAC, the budget-tuition fightback groups, the Peace Committee, and the progressive student ethnic clubs. MAC became the center of this overlap and outreach, all the while pressing for internal democratic functioning, nonsectarian outreach, and activism—messages which have been muted or ignored for too long on our campus.

In carving out our strategy and function, MAC faced several thorny dynamics. As the recipient of funding from our college president, both for the two Anti-Bigotry Teach-Ins and a Center for Multiculturalism, and as part of a strategy to involve as many people as possible, we cast our net widely to create a coalition which included all the ethnic, religious, gender, political, and social forces on campus. The politics needed to be broad and inclusive to bring these groups together and to create the political space in which more complex, politically progressive ideas could be raised.

Over time, the only truly committed activists in MAC were the progressives, both students and faculty: The range was from left liberals to radicals. Yet the broader coalition contained organizations self-described as conservative and some described by others as outright racist, sexist, and certainly homophobic. As campus politics heated up during the second year with tuition hikes and the war, the fundamental political differences became apparent and divisive.

We are still struggling with the dynamic of needing a broader coalition with a large and open periphery of students and faculty, but having a leadership and core of activists who often function as a radical struggle group on campus. The contradictions of needing funding from the administration, wanting to stay connected to the many disparate forces on campus, wanting significant changes in the college academically and socially, and being energized by the shared vision of radical changes, all keep our movement and organization fluid and constitute a constant challenge.

No “P.C.” At B.C.

The national movement for multiculturalism has been vilified in the dominant media as ideologically pure and dictatorially insistent upon being “politically correct? This was certainly not the case at B.C. Here our working class and overworked students suffered, if anything, from inadequate attention to ideological and abstract concerns; they were more focused on the practical attack on bigotry than on the long-range curriculum transformations so obviously threatening to the academic establishment.

Because the focus of the group began with campus “bigotry,” the faculty did not overreact defensively against minor mention of curriculum change. Certainly there is faculty opposition and foot-dragging in response to efforts to transform curriculum, but the full-scale attack on multiculturalism has been moderated. Perhaps apathy engendered by years of constant budgetary cutbacks has muted all responses on the part of the faculty.

On the student side, this was a first experience with political activism for most They seemed to be gathering abroad array of progressive ideas and directions, almost as if getting high on the contact with such a diverse and rich group of people, actions and politics. That we could identify ourselves with national movements—for multiculturalism, against bigotry, against sexism and bias-related violence, and against the war—was deeply important to us all. For the first time, many of our students began to see themselves as important actors in a national, even international, drama of social change.

While separatism typified most of the student clubs and activities, MAC provided the ground for those students eager to break down barriers. We were also fortunate to have self-conscious feminists, including many women of color, who helped lead the group in a participatory and collaborative style.

Perhaps many were responding to the worsening climate in the city—jobs, services, good will constantly shrinking. Perhaps experiencing the Reagan-Bush era for their entire conscious lives had taken its toll and challenged students to awaken from the stupor society has imposed on them. Perhaps the drying up of more traditional avenues to economic and social success has whetted their appetites for taking risks to defend their own senses of self and community. Perhaps realizing the billion dollars per day on a war to extend U.S. government hegemony, paired with the economic crisis at home which demanded further increases in already high tuition and cutbacks in all services for themselves and their families, brought them to the point where fighting back seemed reasonable, even exciting. The presence of a dedicated core of organizers intent on creating a democratic activist organization gave form and substance to the striving of these new activists.

One of the greatest strengths of this movement may be its greatest weakness: Its great diversity, culturally and ideologically, coupled with insufficient time for serious study and shared experiences, renders the group fuzzy politically. To the extent we remain broad-based, we will reach out to larger numbers with varied politics, hoping to unify people and raise political ideas to them. To the extent we function as a “struggle group,” we will narrow our numbers but sharpen our campus interventions and train an important group of young activists.

The future of the group lies, of course, in the future of the movement If a strong national movement grows and moves to the left, certainly the B.C. group will grow with and be transformed by it The state of activism and politics on campus will reflect the national political response to conservatism, the U.S. role in the “new world order,” and the attack on the living conditions of the poor and working class. Yet the particular flavor, activities and leadership will reflect the ethnic and class diversity that gives Brooklyn its particular persona.

November-December 1991, ATC 35