To mark the end of Black History Month, AKEBA, Plattsburgh State’s black student union, held its fourth and final event during February, “The History of Racism,” Feb. 25 in Yokum.
The event, facilitated by Don Kao, director of Project Reach in New York, focused on the correlation of the oppression of not only blacks, but also Chinese Americans and Native Americans, to name a few.
Kao has been confronting issues such as racism, homophobia, sex and gender at Project Reach for more than 30 years. During his presentation, Kao asked the nearly 100 people in attendance if they knew what happened in 1492. Though the unanimous answer was “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” Kao explained that year marked the beginning of American racism — and it has yet to end, Kao said.
At PSUC, racism has affected many students belonging to different minority groups. For senior Rodney Ambroise, AKEBA’s Mr. Black Student Union, enduring racism on campus is a daily struggle.
“To this day, I walk down the street, and I see people cross the street because they’re trying to avoid me,” Ambroise said. “When I first came to Plattsburgh, a car drove by and called me a n—– out the window.”
Not only do these personal attacks happen on the streets of Plattsburgh, they also happen within the confines of residence halls. Ambroise said he heard his cleaning lady call him a n—— outside of his room in Macdonough Hall. Somebody had also written “Black kids suck” in a third-floor bathroom last week, and Ambroise said that issue has yet to be addressed.
“If that’s not a sign that racism still exists on this campus, I don’t know what is,” Ambroise said.
J.W. Wiley, director of the Center for Diversity, Pluralism, and Inclusion at PSUC, said for the most part, PSUC does a good job with addressing racism, but there are blindspots they do not see.
“They want to do the right thing. They haven’t gotten it right all the time,” Wiley said, “even with me leading, doesn’t necessarily mean we get it right all the time. But I’m pretty proud of the university.”
Last year, members of Nu Theta Gamma published a list for an invite party with the phrase “Don’t be a n—–” written on it. The incident sparked an outcry from students and faculty and led to members of the fraternity attending a workshop led by Wiley.
This example of racism led to a Facebook page, “We Will Not Stand For Racism,” created by Michael Haynes, a PSUC graduate and AKEBA president at the time. The Facebook page now has more than 650 members, including PSUC junior Alexandria McCalla, who serves as president of the Organization for Women of Ethnicity and vice president of Club Caribbean.
“We try our best to get past racism and build on our community,” McCalla said, “but as a school, I don’t think that they really do anything to help us with that.”
McCalla, however, believes it is not the job of the PSUC administration to fight racism.
“We are all grown students in college, and we can’t look to people to fix problems for us. We should try to fix them ourselves,” she said.
McCalla points to the North Country’s lack of exposure to diversity and the existence of the Ku Klux Klan in Plattsburgh, the only chapter in New York state, as reasons for ignorance.
The Fraternal White Knights of the KKK have not been openly present in the Plattsburgh community. Their members are sworn to an oath of secrecy. Members use the acronym AYAK (Are You A Klansman) to address others they believe to be members. If they are, the response is AKIA (A Klansman I Am). Though they have not been seen by many in the area, their existence is enough to scare and intimidate minorities.
“I told my father,” Ambroise said. “My father told me to transfer.”
Because chapters of the KKK are protected by the First Amendment right to assemble, there is little to nothing that can be done to remove these groups from local communities. But for Kao, it’s always easier to deal with a target who’s an obvious enemy.
“The far more difficult place to be is where there isn’t a KKK around,” Kao said. “And with the absence of this kind of history and perspective, you have a lot of people who are liberal people who are bystanders who don’t do anything because they don’t understand enough that makes them angry enough to say ‘F— it, we can’t let this continue.’”
Three different KKK organizations could not be reached for comment, including a 24-hour “Klanline.”
According to Kao, people have failed to study a good majority of oppression and discrimination throughout history. And by doing so, it’s logical that people won’t work together because somebody set in place “something systemic — it’s institutional, it’s even become global.”
This lack of education is the reason Wiley engages students in classroom conversation.
“Somebody needs to care about the voices of the underrepresented,” Wiley said. “The racism on this campus that’s taking place that’s still alive is not going to go away until we concentrate on building a culture of allies where we’re all leaning into social justice, not just leaning into racism.”
Email Chris Burek at firstname.lastname@example.org