It was 1987. The assassinations of MLK and RFK were nearly twenty years in the past. The Voting Rights Act was more than twenty years old. Ronald Reagan was in his second term in the White House. And the Cosby Show was in its third season as America’s favorite TV show.
In January 1987, The Vanderbilt Hustler, the university’s student newspaper, reported the news that an African American woman had pledged a white sorority. The pledging either sparked or was sparked by (which came first is unclear) a mandate from Vandy’s provost and chancellor demanding that the sororities and fraternities develop plans for integration. The story made national news; at least the Washington Post took brief notice.
The Hustler published a letter to the editor from Blair Robinson. That letter conveyed the sentiments of many people I talked to; they wanted to know: “Why is this front page news?” I was studying at Scarritt Graduate School at the time, taking my Bible classes at Vanderbilt’s divinity school. As a quasi-member of the Vandy community, I wrote my own letter to the editor in response to Ms. Robinson et al.:
"To the Editor
I agree with Blair Robinson’s letter in the January 23 issue of The Vanderbilt Hustler: The event of a black woman joining a traditionally white sorority should not be a big deal. Michelle Alexander and Pi Beta Phi should be applauded for not making an issue of the pledging. But The Vanderbilt Hustler deserves equal applause for recognizing and publicizing the significance of the event.
Eighty-three years of discrimination is a big deal! Perhaps we were all aware of racism at Vanderbilt. Perhaps we have grown sick of this annual focus on racism every January. Or perhaps we are content to ignore the problem, hoping that it will solve itself. Perhaps it will. But 83 years of history have shown otherwise. Any successive approximations to true integration and equality deserve to be recognized, if not for the celebration of the progress then for the acknowledgement of the continuing tragedy.
Blair Robinson understates our goal saying, “Until an action like this can happen without gaining front page attention, we still have a long way to go.” I would add that until an action like this can happen without prompting a controversial administrative mandate, we have a long way to go. Until blacks and whites can live together without denying their heritage, we have a long way to go. Until whites and blacks can recognize their dependence on each other, we have a long way to go. And while at Vanderbilt the issue is black and white, until we recognize that respect and interaction among ALL races is both just and mutually beneficial, we cheat ourselves out of the enrichment in diversity. Until we can learn, work, and celebrate together because of and in spite of our differences, we still have a very long way to go.
So Pi Beta Phi did not choose Michelle Alexander because she is black. And Ms Alexander did not join Pi Beta Phi to make a statement. But I suppose they are learning to live with the unsolicited publicity. Michelle Alexander is a black woman in an otherwise white sorority . And at Vanderbilt University in January 1987, that is still a big deal."
Now another twenty years have passed. Barack Obama is in the White House, and we haven’t had a bona fide American assassination in some time.
Bu I can’t think of any top-rated TV shows that feature black (or Latino or Asian) casts. And we still seem to be squeamish talking about race.