MLK & Race Relations at Dickinson

Kevin Ssonko ’20, Opinion Columnist


This week marks a special moment of reflection for America as a nation. This week marks 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The prophet of nonviolence was arguably the most influential American of the 20th century. It was during that fateful week of April 4, 1968 that King spoke of mountaintops and promised lands. And it is this topic of promised lands that turn us to race relations as it stands today, and more particularly at Dickinson College. The question is begged whether we as the people have learned the lessons that King tried to teach us of the fierce urgency of now, and the moral imperative of justice.

It is without question that race continues to be a problem in our culture. And at our own college we came face to face with the stark reality of racism with the incident of white supremacy this Halloween. But it seems from my perspective that we as a people have yet to learn the lessons that King so desperately tried to teach us, for once again in the face of an opportunity to make change, we have instead chosen what King himself called “The tranquilizing dart of gradualism.” It is this that turns my attention to the way that the student body has responded to many of the initiatives that have arrived after the Halloween incident. The primary example of this has been Mix-It-Up Monday.

While there is a case to be made that Mix-It-Up Monday is a half measure to deal with more deep seeded and insidious issues of racism and discrimination on campus, the overwhelming reality is that most students have not, from my perception, responded to the challenge. In the wake of the incident last fall, there was much talk about how Dickinson was far better than that one incident, and that it should not be used as a measuring stick for the actual attitudes of white students toward black students on campus, members of the lacrosse team even stated in public meetings, such as the one held at Allison Hall, that they themselves were “not racists.”But these claims of innocence become harder to believe when matched up against the inaction of students to integrate spaces that are quite clearly segregated.

On the first Mix-It-Up Monday, I was shocked to see that most lacrosse players, that I could observe, were not even really mixing with other students, but were mixing with other related social groups of which by any social measuring stick they would have felt comfortable with anyway. I even saw some of the more progressive students that I know, appealing to the idea that it ‘wouldn’t work anyway’ or that the whole thing was ‘a dumb idea.’ The one constant in all of these responses was that all of these students were white. White students were given permission by the school to integrate their own spaces and what I have witnessed over the last two weeks is that with very few exceptions they have by in large refused to do so.

Why does this matter? Because if we are to take the words of King seriously, then we are all complicit in fighting systems of white supremacy, especially as they function in our immediate environment. How can we claim in our time to be moral citizens in tune with justice, when there are clear injustices that exist within our community and when the opportunity comes to do something about it, most of us stay quiet. Whether it is the lacrosse team, or the football team, or any other white student on campus, if they are to claim to not be racist, then where was the effort when the opportunity came. If the lacrosse team was serious about dealing with race as, from my perspective, they claimed themselves to be, then they would not only be mixing it up, as well as mixing it up with students of different racial backgrounds, but they would have really been pushing their peers to do so too. From my perspective this did not happen.

50 years ago this week Martin King looked over the mountain. And if he were here today he would condemn us for our inaction. It seems that our community always needs a rash wake up call to deal with the uncomfortable issue of race and even when we do, we seem to deal with it poorly. Race relations at Dickinson are quite obviously poor. The question is whether or not our community will participate in doing the work to make it better. It seems then that we are left with a choice. To honor the legacy of King and take action to change our community. Or to continue to give our tacit consent to a status quo that is quite clearly unjust. 50 years ago Martin King looked over the mountain. 50 years later we still have yet to see the promised land.