Posted on November 4, 2008

U. of I. Homecoming Under Racial Divide

Megan Twohey, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 3, 2008

The homecoming football game had just ended, and students clad in orange T-shirts were swarming the quad in search of post-tailgating festivities, but the nearly 1,700 African-American students packed in a nearby auditorium at the Downstate campus barely noticed.

They were engrossed in a separate African-American Homecoming—complete with its own pageant, fashion show, and step performance—that has stirred controversy and highlighted social segregation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

With pep rallies and parades, homecomings are designed to unify students and alumni in school spirit. But some black students at the University of Illinois and elsewhere say they do not feel welcome in their school’s traditional homecoming activities, nor in the broader social scene on campus—a result, they say, of racial tension and clashing tastes and backgrounds.

There has long been a separate African-American homecoming pageant at Ohio State University. For the second year, the Black Student Union at the University of Minnesota planned its own homecoming events, which took place during the weekend.

“The university has taken steps to recruit us, but that doesn’t mean that we’re socially welcome,” said sophomore Ashley Williams, who helped organize African-American Homecoming at the U. of I. “It’s nice to go to events geared specifically at African-American students.”

Despite the administration’s diversity efforts, racial tension persists at the university, students and administrators say. Last spring, controversy erupted when members of predominantly white fraternities and sororities dressed in costumes that portrayed stereotypes of Latinos and blacks.

And because the student body is only 7 percent African-American, many black students say they simply don’t feel part of the mainstream. African-American Homecoming, they say, offers them a chance to celebrate their culture and presence on campus.

But some white students complain that separate homecomings foster more racial divisions. The complaints have swirled on the Web site of the student newspaper and in conversations on campus. For the first time, organizers are contemplating removing African-American from the title.

Many African-American-named events started decades ago when black students were not invited to participate in the homecoming courts of predominantly white universities.

“For a long time, African-Americans were not encouraged or invited to participate in homecoming,” said Clarence Shelley, special assistant to the chancellor, who was hired by the University of Illinois in 1968 to recruit low-income minority students. “Today, African-American Homecoming is still important. . . African-American, Latino, Asian and Native-American students have found that it’s more useful to make their own activities that are fun for them and to worry less about integrating activities.”