Civil Rights Day visitor speaks his mind

Russ Pressley, University of Alaska Anchorage's AHAINA (African-American, Hispanic, Asian, International and Native American) Student Programs coordinator, and Dr. Eric Abercrumbie, this year's visiting speaker for Civil Rights Day, have something in common. They both belong to a think tank. Abercrumbie is the national president of the John D. O'Bryant Think Tank for Black Professionals in Higher Education on Predominantly White Campuses (JDOTT), a national organization. Pressley met Abercrumbie through his own role in JDOTT as the program's vice president before he invited him to speak on campus.

Pressley said the non-profit organization JDOTT helps him, as a black man, work at UAA, a mostly white university. �Abercrumbie, who teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati's Department of African American Studies in Ohio, is a strong inspirational speaker. His booming voice at the Student Leadership Luncheon on Jan. 12 did not hold back in telling of the work that still needs to be done in race relations and the hope that exists.

UC, where Abercrumbie has worked since 1972, offers numerous courses in African American studies—from Introduction to the Black Experience to doctoral level courses, such as Exploring Sexism and White Racism. The school even teaches several Swahili courses. Abercrumbie said the courses he teaches focus on the black male experience.

Much like Pressley's job, Abercrumbie directs the African American Cultural and Research Center, as well as the Office of Ethnic Programs and Services at UC.

Abercrumbie got his inspiration to help others through getting fired from his first professional job. “It was a price I paid for bringing together diverse people,” he said.

In 1991, he helped open the Cultural Center at UC because “black students on our campus said the university was not sensitive to our needs. The students convinced the university that they needed a home away from home.” The students got articles from the school newspapers that showed how they had been victimized. “The Cultural Center was established by the university to show, `We hear you and we're here to make a difference.'”

Though the influx of students to AHAINA Student Programs is fairly low, Abercrumbie says this is not unusual. “There should be more students utilizing our services,” he said. He quoted several reasons why they don't. “It could be a lack of leadership. Students sometimes—I don't like to use the word `apathy' but… Also, some folks don't want the stigma.”

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He stressed the need for people to go out of their way to integrate with one another—to take the initiative in meeting people different from themselves. He called this “breaking the silence” and said that most people don't. “We'd rather just be quiet,” he said.

“People getting to know people is important. I don't think we can live in an all-black world. I don't think we can live in an all-white world,” Abercrumbie said.

Still, even if we get to know many people of other races than ourselves, “we're not going to love each other,” he said. Rather, he advocates for a “peaceful coexistance.”

Requiring all students to take classes on ethnic diversity is another thing Pressley and Abercrumbie agreed upon. “Yes, definitely,” Abercrumbie said. “I think to be required to take something in that area is as important as being required to take math.”

Pressley said people cannot afford to miss these classes since workplaces are becoming more and more diverse. “Employers will expect it,” he said.

The recent presidential election, though, causes Abercrumbie great concern. “I think this election is a step backwards. If we look at this last election, we clearly saw people of color divide with white folk. People are challenging affirmative action, race programs,” he said. “If you saw, after the election, what black people said about their faith in Bush…Nobody wants to deal with it (race).”

 It's not easy to face race issues. Abercrumbie said the three most difficult subjects for people to talk about are No. 1 race relations, No. 2 homosexuality and No. 3 abortion. “Most of this country's still segregated. Your mayor (George Wuerch) was sharing with me that there's no black community here, no white community. But I guarantee that if I stay here long enough, I'll find them,” he said.

Abercrumbie said that even the leaders of color that President Bush appointed have been disappointing to the black community. “(Gen.) Colin Powell was more of a white community hero than a black one. At least Clinton had people who could go into black communities and be successful. No one that Bush has appointed yet could.”

“If I were George Bush, I would set up a nonpartisan commission on race,” he said.

The message Abercrumbie leaves with UAA is that there is still hope for the future. “I think we have to be honest that we have made progress,” he said.

But he is concerned about the next 10 years. “We quit working on race issues. That's why I think college is so important. We have to be hopeful for our children.”