Unpleasant Reality: CMU looks at racism in Mount Pleasant and on campus
Portia Brown and Angela Hill relaxed downtown at a Mount Pleasant bar. A man saw the Central Michigan University students from across the room and approached Brown.
He smiled. He flirted. Without thinking, or maybe thinking too much, he dropped a bombshell instead of the compliment he intended.
“You’re the prettiest black girl I’ve ever seen.”
Brown’s face dropped, insulted.
“He said he was just giving me a compliment. I had to explain why that was not OK,” said Brown, a Bridgeport broadcast major and on-campus activist. “It’s hard for people to understand because they’re not trying to offend you, but they do anyway.”
Brown's story is all too familiar for students, faculty and staff of color at CMU. According to a 2015 survey of minority students, nearly 50 percent said Mount Pleasant has a problem with racism. Another 40 percent said CMU as an institution has the same problem.
The survey’s lead investigator, sociology professor Mary Senter, spent the last eight years gathering data for two campus climate surveys: One for all students and another for students of color. A sampling of faculty and staff responses was published in 2010.
"Unfortunately, there has not been positive progress since 2010. In fact, in some areas, there's been movement backwards," Senter said.
All three studies detail diversity challenges facing the university and Mount Pleasant. However disappointing, those experiences are laying the groundwork for what Mount Pleasant police and CMU administrators call real, positive change.
A hostile climate
University marketing materials create an image of diverse students interacting without social barriers. Senter's survey paints a slightly different picture.
"If you ask students whether they think learning about diverse groups is important, and whether they think they're better off attending university with a lot diversity," Senter said, "the vast majority in (2010 and 2015) said they were learning and that (diversity) was important."
Overall, minority students make up a small portion of the total population: Only 3,267 out of 19,549 students identify as belonging to an ethnic group. Out of nearly 1,000 faculty members, only 190 identify as belonging to a minority group.
The survey defines students of color as students identifying as African American, Asian, Hispanic or Native American. International students were not included in the study.
Out of a sampling of 2,125 minority students surveyed electronically in 2015, 40 percent felt discriminated against, or ignored, because of their racial or ethnic background. At least 60 percent of those students think university officials aren't doing enough to promote racial and ethnic diversity on campus.
The study shows many minority students and faculty consistently hear derogatory comments about people of color on CMU's campus and downtown – mostly in passing and not directed at any one person.
Indirect racism is perhaps the most prevalent race issue on campus, Senter said, and has created a hostile environment for students of color in and outside the classroom. In many of these cases, fellow students and professors don't know they're doing anything wrong.
At the same time, more than 75 percent of students said they were satisfied with their experience at CMU. Most said the university was far less diverse than they were sold, but were happy just the same. The same number of minority students said they would reenroll at CMU if they had to.
It's a confusing conclusion, considering half of survey respondents shared experiences with racism. Senter and others believe a hard look at how we treat people of color in town and on campus is an important first step.
A daily struggle
On Sept. 17, a red pickup truck sat parked in a Mount Pleasant strip mall. The truck and parking lot are in view of Mission Street in mid-day traffic. The truck was painted to resemble a Confederate Flag, complemented by a large Rebel flag unfurling in the back.
Carolyn Dunn, the associate vice president for the Office of Institutional Diversity, said this a disappointing, but typical, sight in Mid-Michigan.
"As an American Indian woman, as a native woman who has lived her life outside of my tribal community, that’s the world I’m accustomed to," Dunn said. "I live in Mount Pleasant and I see the Confederate flags. That is sadly just part of our community. There’s a large part of our community that doesn’t want to see change."
Dunn's office helped fund the campus climate studies. She is working with Senter to develop solutions. For Dunn, expressions or symbols of hate like the Confederate Flag show how the deck is stacked against people of color in Mount Pleasant.
In the faculty study, participants had the option to give open-ended answers. This gave Senter a wealth of personal anecdotes to pair with her data. Responses included stories of police harassment, discrimination from shop owners and intimidation.
"When you go outside, into the community, you’re African American, you’re with the university, you’re intelligent and you don’t fit all of the stereotypes that you hold … then it’s problematic," said one faculty respondent. "They are very, very uncomfortable with you."
In stores, dirty looks and rude comments are a common occurrence with minority professors and staff. Some respondents said they have been followed by wary store managers – some cashiers have confused them with welfare recipients. One minority faculty member was made so uncomfortable in a place of worship by the congregation's body language that she fainted in the doorway.
A 2013 study conducted by the Isabella County Human Rights Commission found the same problems exist for Native Americans. Nearly 35 percent of Native Americans have a negative view of Isabella County based on how community residents interact with people of their culture.
Details about police stops offer another glimpse into the daily struggles of people of color. One professor described a party with other non-white colleagues – a game of cards with some music in the background. An officer was called to the party to address a noise complaint. As the officer approached, the professor stepped outside.
"Excuse me, do you live here?" said the officer.
The professor said: "Yes I do."
"Can I see your ID?"
"My ID? I'm in my own home."
The conversation's tone became more intense, even as the professor explained that a group of faculty were inside.
"I don’t care who they are," the officer said. "You need to get the party calmed down or, if we have to come back, we're taking you to jail and you only."
Professors shared similar stories at a Black Lives Matter community dialogue held last month.
Emeritus professor Diane Newby said a police officer stopped her at night for a routine traffic stop. The officer then asked her if there were any weapons in her vehicle. Even Newby’s son, who is now 35, dealt with the same type of discrimination – so much so that Newby put him through boarding school to get him out of the predominantly white Isabella County.
Newby’s son is not unique, said Joyce Baugh, a political science professor and Civil Rights scholar.
“My young black students have told me that some African American students don't drive down Mission Street. (They) take side streets so they don’t get hassled by police,” she said.
However, one-third of students reported having a negative view of local police. Accusations of police overreach are particularly troubling for Jeff Browne, public information officer for the Mount Pleasant Police Department.
"If someone felt they were profiled because of their race, they should definitely report it and we will follow up with it," Browne said. "If we don’t know about it, we can't do anything about it. We want our interactions with the public to be good, because you can't operate without public support."
On the other hand, Browne defended the actions of officers reported by the faculty member. In both cases, he said, the officers were simply just doing their jobs.
"I'm not discounting their experiences — they felt how they felt. However, from what I read, that isn’t too out of the ordinary," Browne said. "Traffic stops are the most dangerous things we do. Every situation is different, so we have to ask questions. We use those questions as a way to start a conversation to ascertain if they have something in the car.
"I’m going to guess it didn’t start with that (line of questioning). It all goes back to people’s perceptions."
Senter wholly disagrees with the notion that faculty members "misremembered" their interactions with police.
"That is exactly why social scientists look for patterns," she said. "Any one person can misremember. Any one person can have a bad experience. When people share social characteristics like race or gender and you see a pattern of behavior, that’s when one has to take the patterns seriously."
Racially-biased policing is not tolerated by Mount Pleasant Police Department, Browne said. Any officer found acting in a discriminatory way will receive disciplinary action. Discipline can range from a letter of reprimand to termination.
Browne also wonders what departments initiated any of those stops. There are five law enforcement departments with stations in Mount Pleasant, including the Isabella County Sheriff's Department, Michigan State Police, Tribal Police, Central Michigan University Police and Mount Pleasant police.
Senter's data shows that faculty and students were unable to discern which police unit initiated a traffic stop.
"Because we wear a uniform and a badge, we’re all lumped into one bunch," Browne said. "That's what's difficult for us sometimes. If we know what department was responsible, it gives us a chance to clear our name."
Singled out for being different
According to the climate survey, hostile interactions at CMU were less pronounced, but still present issues for students and faculty of color.
In the course of the investigation, students were asked about feeling left out or singled out because of their race. At least 43 percent of students said this was a common problem. The same goes for faculty and staff.
On her office computer, Senter keeps a video interview with a black female student. The video describes an incident involving an in-class group exercise. Students were asked to work out a problem and share their answers.
When it was the black student's turn, she was ignored. The interview ends with the student in tears.
"All of us have been in some setting where we weren’t fully appreciated," Senter said. "But when 43 percent of people who have something like race in common say that about working with peers, I think you have a significant problem."
From the faculty perspective, many reported instances when they were asked to represent their race on university committees. Above all things, Senter said it is important to remember that an opinion from an individual is just that – an individual opinion, Senter said.
"(Students and faculty) have tremendous contributions to make to CMU, but they are not responsible for speaking for an entire race of people," she said.
In rare occasions, students and professors can be much more direct about their attitudes about race.
"I’ve got shallow students who make racist comments in class," responded one professor. "Racial comments, talking about how people in Detroit have all these babies, trying to explain high death rate; (or) why do black men only rape white women…(and) always the affirmative action thing.
"It’s crazy. I've had it in writing."
Stories like these are why Hill, president for the CMU chapter of the NAACP, thinks the atmosphere on campus is worse than in the city.
"You can't really separate the town from the school," Hill said. "We spend 85 percent of our lives on campus. The campus is where we live, even if you live off-campus."
The type of experiences she's had with Brown downtown follow her everywhere, as she heads to class, or to a meeting with fellow NAACP members. She's been asked if she's mixed because of the color and shape of her eyes, or even if she's black at all.
"I don't understand why I can't be the girl with the 'pretty eyes,'" she said. "People talk about (Brown) and say 'oh you mean Portia with the curly hair?' Why can't people just be people?"
When she enrolled, Hill was pleased with the diversity she saw in freshman orientation. When she got to CMU, she quickly saw that wasn't the reality. Hill was prepared to be surrounded by mostly white students, but didn't think the lack of diversity would be as widespread.
"As soon as I got here, everyone was kind of standoffish," she said. "I was really kind of scared."
As she made friends, she felt more comfortable, but noticed how little white and non-white students interact with each other. They go to different parties, she said. They hang out at different places in town.
At university programs, she saw a sharp division of whites and blacks at events celebrating different cultures.
"Some people get here and they say, 'I've never felt so different before,'" Hill said. "I've had girls say to me, 'I've never felt so much hate.'"
Making matters worse, ethnic groups on campus often judge each other from within their own ranks. Hill and the NAACP held a panel discussion earlier this month to discuss the topic of putting on metaphorical "black faces," or having to act black for acceptance. Much of the discussion centered around prejudices between dark-skinned and light-skinned African Americans.
"Everyone is so cliqued off, and that makes the problem harder to solve," she said.
No easy solutions
With all of this information at their fingertips, Dunn and Senter are learning how they can help curb systemic racism on campus and beyond.
Dunn’s plan is to engage student race relations in a more direct, inclusive way.
CMU has traditionally used a multicultural approach, preaching that cultures are distinct and somewhat exclusive. Now, Dunn is promoting inclusion.
"Multiculturalism doesn’t address community issues (or acknowledge) that different communities have different (internal) issues," Dunn said. "Multiculturalism puts everyone in a group under one umbrella and doesn’t allow us to have these valuable, inclusive conversations."
Dunn's office is championing social justice as a whole, recognizing that all ethnic groups want to build a better society.
"With a social justice umbrella, each community will be able to say how they feel," Dunn said. "These issues of social justice really are universal across ethnic lines."
Part of that mission starts with more diversity programming, which is a shaky solution based on Senter's studies – the surveys show that few people attend cultural events. With this in mind, Dunn wants to expand diversity curriculum in University Program courses.
Across the board, Hill, Brown, Senter and Dunn believe education is the key to solving racial issues.
Browne said he and his law enforcement colleagues are on the same page. The department takes every chance they can to attend diversity training. Even more so, they try to be active members of the community so they know who they serve.
When Jasmine Rand, the attorney who represented Trayvon Martin’s family, visited campus this month, she sent a invitation to Browne for the police attend. Browne said the experience was informative, and that Rand and the department shared the same views on community policing.
"That makes me feel like we’re doing a good job," Browne said. "I'm not comfortable with one-third of students saying we're doing poorly. That means we have room to improve. But the programming with CMU is working, and we're happy to be involved."
Watching these groups find common ground is validation that Dunn's strategies could have an impact.
"People have to be invested in social change; there has to be a reason to make that change," she said. "That's why we talk about it as a social issue. We have a good strong cohort in town and at (CMU) committed to these issues.
"That's what's exciting for me moving forward."