Up From Oppression

Race and Class At The University of Arizona

By Jay M. Rochlin

One of America's leading thinkers on race believes people of color are different from their white counterparts. Law professor Richard Delgado says this is so because minorities experience racism virtually every day, while whites rarely experience or even notice acts of subtle or overt racism.

Some writers today think the problem of race in America might never be solved, only better understood and perhaps better coped with. They reject the idea that "color blindness" will lead to justice or equality. They say we need to look at issues in a "race-conscious" way, or forever continue to see white culture as superior.

America's universities are charged, among other duties, with the responsibility of perpetuating our culture--all of it. As part of that effort over the past 30 years, universities have made a variety of attempts to recruit and retain minority students. Some schools and the communities they serve have had more success than others.

Feature Here in Tucson, the University of Arizona has an Hispanic president; last year it had a black student-body president; the Tucson Unified School District has an Hispanic superintendent; and the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson is Hispanic. Yet it remains a harsh fact that a disproportionately small number of African American and Mexican American students complete college degrees.

Fred Acosta was one of the exceptions--he made it. I met Fred when he was president of the UA's Hispanic Alumni group. A great storyteller, he told me about coming back to the University of Arizona and facing racism in many of his classes after fighting in the Korean War.

When Fred entered college in the 1950s, he didn't know terms like "class theory," "stratification," or "institutional racism." He simply thought the "folks at the university didn't like Mexicans." Even so, he graduated in 1960 and spent the rest of his life giving others the hope that they, too, could achieve a college education.

After listening to Fred's tales of injustice, I also began to notice how rare it was to see blacks at class reunions.

Some attended, however, including Mildred Hudson McKee, whom I met at the 50th reunion for the Class of 1940. She told me about one class in which the professor made her and the two other black students sit in the back of the room, separated from white students by a row of seats. But, she added, during the second half of the semester, black students got to sit in the front, with the white students in the back.

Three years later, I heard Laura Banks, at her 50th reunion, tell how she almost didn't graduate because she couldn't pass the swimming component of her physical education class. The reason: Black girls weren't allowed in the university's swimming pool.

Fred Acosta died early and unexpectedly. It was a terrible loss for his family and many friends, but we also mourned the loss of his wonderful stories. Fred's passion for education, his empathy for minorities, and his untimely death were among the reasons I began to collect the stories of other minorities who succeeded in the pursuit of a college education.

The situation in Tucson, and at the UA, is unusual. Our community has more than 750,000 residents, most of whom are Anglo Americans who were born somewhere else. The same is true of faculty members and senior administrators. Few claim southwestern roots.

People like Fred Acosta noticed these things. He described the alienation toward the university felt by the Mexican Americans he grew up with. He looked around his neighborhood and saw friends, or children of friends, who were just as smart and hard-working as the university students. Why were those Chicanos who attempted a college education such exceptions? He wondered why large numbers of Chicanos weren't continuing their educations by taking advantage of this excellent school less than two miles from their homes.

These are important questions for the future of our pluralistic society, a society which purports to offer equal opportunity for all. A university education is generally considered to be an important qualification in the rise to full participation in American public and corporate life. To deny that education to large numbers of our citizens--whether deliberately or inadvertently--is akin to inviting a national disaster.

Perhaps the answer to the troubling questions Fred raised lay in the stories of people just like him, people who triumphed over poverty and racism on their way to a university degree. Knowing that many of the UA's early students wouldn't be around to tell their stories in another decade, I began interviewing them.

The men and women I talked with generally entered "helping" professions. Many became educators. They spend discretionary time speaking to young people about the value of education and personal responsibility. Many serve on commissions and committees, speaking out for education and opportunity, and encouraging others to do the same. They were willing to share their stories and allow me to use their real names because they believe young people might benefit from reading about their experiences.

My fear that the wisdom contained in these stories, if left unrecorded, could be lost was well-founded. Even before the book was published, several of the people I interviewed, including Elgie Batteau and Mildred McKee, died.

Here are just a few of the stories people told me about their experiences at the UA:

Excerpts from Race and Class on Campus: Conversations with Ricardo's Daughter, by Jay M. Rochlin, University of Arizona Press. Hardback, $25.

Jay Rochlin has been an associate director of the University of Arizona Alumni Association for the past 13 years. He edits the UA's alumni magazine.

Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, Class of 1961, MA English, 1968

We used to take Sunday drives around Tucson. One day, when I was five, we were coming around the university area. It was dusk. I still remember. It's like a picture. They had much brighter lights then. The university really lit up. Most of the buildings were there--the old library, the Arizona Museum were near the main gate. Douglass, Old Main.

I asked my dad, "¿Qué es eso?" You know, look at all these buildings. What are they? He said, "Bueno, ahi esta todo la sabiduria del mundo." Well, there exists all the knowledge in the world. And I said, "Bueno, voy a trabajar ahi." I want to work there.

I knew when I was five that I was going to do something other than digging a ditch. The notion of university was born very early on, I'm sure, because my dad put it in such a way that he created a template in my brain.

When he said to me, "Bueno, ahi esta toda la sabiduria del mundo," it stimulated me to think that I could have access to it. That was the template. That was his contribution.

I had no idea about what it meant. He laid a mythic template down. It was a short drive from my house. It was not on the other side of the moon. It wasn't anything unrecognizable. What was different was the physical surroundings. It wasn't something so strange that I couldn't have a relationship to it. All my dad had to do was drive there. All I have to do is put the car in gear, and I am here.

I had no idea when I came here, as a 17-year-old kid, how this worked, why it worked, when it worked, what it meant. None of that. I didn't even know what a "unit" [of class credit] meant.

This is 1956. I came here and I took 19 semester units. Everything from chemistry through accounting, you name it. First semester freshman year with pimples on my face and a crew cut. One of 50 Mexicans on this entire campus. There were probably 6,000 students then.

That was when you were still called "boy" by seniors. I remember they even had us wear a beanie, which I refused to wear.

I remember taking a Spanish class. There were three or four Mexicans in the class. I was 18 years old. I don't remember the teacher's name. She said to the class in English, "None of you Mexicanos can expect to make better than a C because you all come from a mongrel group."

A mongrel group? So we look at each other and we say, "Qué es esto de mongrel? I know mongrel means dog." And we say, "¿Está loca?" Is she nuts? I stuck around in the class for a little while and she repeats the same thing--we come from a mongrel group and we aren't going to get any better than a C. So I decided, "Hey, I'm not going to stay in this damn class." So I left.

That was my first introduction to an actual verbal announcement of how little we were valued at this university simply because we were Mexican.

And they always wanted you to write about Hester Prynne or The Pearl, or they wanted you to write about the American notion of how the world worked. Never about your experience as a person, or your parents, or anything else. Well, a Mexican from the south side making 75 cents an hour isn't going to do that. I wrote about La Llorona or fighting Irish kids on Congress Street because they thought we were Italians and called us wops, or hunting lizards, or hunting snakes out there at Midvale Farms, or going to Cat's Back Mountain at midnight to see if El Vaquero would come down. That they wouldn't hear.

lt was customary for you to introduce yourself in class. As soon as I said Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, voom, I got these stares. Oh, he's one of those. You could see it, feel it and taste it.

Anna Jolivet, Class of 1950, MED Elementary Education 1965, EdD Education Administration 1972, EdD Education Administration 1976

College was always a part of my plans. Always. Not a question of "Will I?"--it was just a matter of my making that a part of my plans.

After my sophomore year I signed up for additional science and math classes. My counselor called me in and said, "I don't understand why you're taking these courses."

I asked, "Is that a problem?" She said, "Well, you've got chemistry and physics. You don't need all of those classes." I replied, "Well, if I go to the university, I have to have them." She said, "You're wasting your time. You should be taking homemaking, some sewing and cooking, learning how to take care of a home, because that's the kind of work you're going to be able to get. You're not going to be able to go to the university."

I said, "I have no interest in the cooking or sewing classes, and it's my intention to take the courses I've outlined. And I do plan to go to the university."

She spent a bit of time talking to me about why I was wasting my time and should not be pursuing such interests.

Finally, when she realized I wasn't about to change my mind--and I knew my mother wouldn't order me to make a change--she said, "Well, you're making a mistake. But you go ahead, you're just making a mistake. You're not going to be able to get anything to do when you finish school."

That was the counselor, and the same woman did the same thing in counseling my younger brother when he came along.

When I got to the university, I would go to school early in the morning, go to my job in the midday, go home, wash, start dinner, and go back to school in the evening. Whatever had to be done. You planned and scheduled your day so you took care of everything.

I remember one experience that I had with a speech class. The professor wanted each of us to make a tape. "I'm going to analyze the tape and talk about the kinds of things you need to do to improve your speech," she explained. She gave us something to read when we did this taping.

A few sessions later, when she was analyzing the tapes, she called my name, and I raised my hand. She said, "Oh, did you do this tape?" I said I had. "Well," she said, "I'm surprised. I didn't find anything to correct in your speech."

I just looked at her and thought, "What did you expect? From looking out over the class, you had identified who you were going to have major problems with, and here I am, and you haven't found anything incorrect in my speech."

In one of our education classes, the professor was saying that if the legislature passed a bill to do away with segregated schools, that would mean teachers, regardless of race, could be assigned to teach in any schools. Here we are all in the same class, learning the same kinds of strategies for instruction, and the question was raised, "If our schools were desegregated, and if you had black teachers assigned to teach in white schools, how many of you believe they would be effective teachers?" Only a few hands went up. Then, "How many of you feel the instruction would be inferior?" There were all these hands waving.

One of the people who was in that class with me--I know she doesn't remember me--but years later we taught together in the same school, and then I became the principal where her son went to school. She was very complimentary of me as a teacher and also as a principal. I thought, "You don't remember when we sat in class and you raised your hand and said you didn't think black teachers could be effective teachers."

At the time I was at the university, I don't think there was an expectation that I would ever teach anywhere but in a school for black students. I don't think I ever heard or saw anything that made me believe the professors were looking at me or any other black student as an asset in improving relationships and contributing something significant.

Evelia Martínez, Class of 1974

I remember even in the sixth grade there were half a dozen kids who were the top students, and we'd talk about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wanted to be a teacher because I had a teacher who was a strong influence in my life. To me, that seemed like a good job.

My mother valued education. For her, if she could give us the best education possible, then she'd have done her job as a parent.

I had a variety of counselors, and at that point the counselors were saying to me, "Well, you're Mexican. Even if you graduate from high school, what you need to know is how to cook and how to sew, because you're just going to go home and be pregnant and have kids."

A freshman counselor, a man, told me that, too. "You're Mexican. You're not going to go to college. You know, what you need to learn is how to cook and sew."

I refused to take the schedule home for my mother to sign. I said, "I'm not taking this home. I need to take college prep courses." Back in junior high I knew I wanted to go to college.

What made me do it? There was no other choice for me. I knew I was going to have to get a good education so I could get a good job so I could support my mother and myself. It was always that kind of an issue.

Salomón Baldenegro, Class of 1986,

MED Special Education 1988

My freshman year at the university was a really bad one. Not bad, it was rough. I lived with my grandmother, and she was disabled. So it was just the two of us. And I'd wake up in the morning, feed her, and dress her because she couldn't move too well. I'd give her medicine. And I'd come to school.

About 10:30 or 11 a.m., I'd have to be back home, and I didn't have a car, so I had to walk or take the bus. I'd feed her again; and, many times, help her to the bathroom because she could barely walk. And then I'd go back to class, and then eventually go back home. It was real rough in that sense.

But I didn't mind it because my grandmother and I had a great relationship. I muttered sometimes because it cut into my social life a lot. But I didn't really begrudge it--my Nana and I were just super close. But it did cut into my social life, and it made it really hard. Between classes I couldn't go to the library and study. I was on work study, about 15 hours a week, at Ag-Bio chem.

Willie Cocio, Class of 1971

I did everything from ceramic work to foundry work to construction work to carpentry, building houses, worked in TV. Just wherever I could get the job. Some teachers felt I didn't have the commitment to school because I didn't have 24 hours a day to devote to their particular class. I said, "To me, at this point, commitment is showing up. I just worked eight hours in an iron foundry."

When I got married, I had up to three jobs during school. At 7 a.m. I'd be at KGUN-TV, where I worked until 2:30 p.m. Then I'd go straight to a sandal shop and work until around 6 p.m. And then I'd go to classes. There are no saguaro thorns in my back.

Elgie Batteau, Class of 1930, MA History 1945

We had one professor who taught an education course we had to take. There were two other black girls in the class. He sat the three of us together in the back of the room.

There were always two or three of the white students who would come to us and say, "Let's go to the dean and tell the dean about what's going on." They said, "We'll go to the back along with you." And we'd say, "We have a hard enough time as it is. At least they've accepted us. And now we're just trying to make it. So if we started going to the dean, it may stir up more trouble."

The only "D" I have on my record was the one that professor gave me. He gave all three of us black girls Ds.

The dean of the College of Education told me, "Ask him to let you see your bluebook and go over your bluebook with him." So I asked the professor to tell me where my work was weak. We had four questions and four points to each question. I said, "Did I fail all of them--is that why I got a D?" He gave each one of us a D, and we had been getting Cs and occasionally, he would give us a B.

He said, "You were weak on one point of one question." I said, "And that deserved a D?" The dean had coached me on how to handle it. I said, "I'd like to see my bluebook. Can I make an appointment with you to go over it together?" He said yes. He made the appointment. But when I went up for it, he said the janitor had thrown his bluebooks away. That's the only D I have on my record.

One professor gave me a B as a final grade. I said, "I'm happy to get this B." I'd been so accustomed to them giving me Cs, you see. And she said, "Well, you deserve an A." And I said, "I would have loved to have seen an A on my grade sheet." She said, "But I've been told not to give a black student an A. They said if they were very good, give them a B. Never give them an A."

But I was just so happy they'd accepted me in the first place, because they weren't accepting blacks every place then. They didn't think we had the intelligence to do it.

Hadie Redd, Class of 1955

My basketball teammates--Bill Reeves, Larry Brown, George Rountree--these guys were so interested in my making the team. Without them, I wouldn't have made it. They made sure that I did well. Not only that, they wanted me to excel.

We had a good start. We won three of four games at the beginning.

One day after practice our coach, Fred Enke, called me over. He said, "Hadie..." Oh God! I thought I'd done something wrong. One thing he didn't want us to do was dunk the ball. He'd always tell us to use the backboard. I thought maybe he'd seen us doing some clowning. I walked over to him, and he had his head down. He placed his hand on my shoulder. Something was on his mind. I could read that automatically.

He said, "Hadie, we're off to a good start, and I don't know how to put this to you. Please believe me that I tried everything I could. We're going to Lubbock, Texas, and I've tried everything to find a hotel that will accommodate the whole team." He said, "The answer is all the same. 'No.' But I want you to go, the team wants you to go, and basketball wants you to go. It would be good for the state, too. I want you to think about it."

I commenced to walk away, not realizing that my entry onto the basketball team was making history. I wasn't thinking about that. That was the furthest thing from my mind. As I began to walk away, I thought, "My God, I can't let someone else do this. I'm here. I have to take on this challenge. I just have to do it." I walked back over to the coach and said, "Let's go. I'm ready." It seemed as though there was a lot of weight lifted off his shoulders.

I called my dad, and I told my him the decision I'd made. He applauded me for it. He told me, "I know it's going to be a very difficult task for you--you've never been confronted with anything like this. As a kid, you were sheltered and protected by your parents." And I said, "Do you think we should tell Mom about it?" He said, "Son, it's up to you. But if I were you, I wouldn't mention this to your mother." I said, "Why, Dad?" He said, "If you did, Arizona would be minus one basketball player, and that would be you."

I didn't tell my mother until after this was all over.

1954, Texas Tech. We arrived in Lubbock, got off the plane, got on a bus, rode to the hotel. All of my teammates were getting off and going into the hotel. I walked up the steps and into the hotel, and a doorman placed his hand on my chest. He said, "You can't come in."

I had to wait outside. I went and sat on a bench along with my coach and some of the other players who were ready to strike. They didn't want to play. They said, "We don't have to take this."

I said, "We came down here to play the basketball game and try to win and do our very best and get out."

You see, I couldn't react. Everything would have been destroyed, and that wasn't what I wanted to do. And I'm sure that wasn't what the other fellows wanted to do, although there was very serious talk about not playing the game.

But you went on these trips, and you got picked out by a black family. Beautiful people. They wanted to do everything they could to make you comfortable. Anything you wanted to eat you could have.

On later trips, once the car started to leave the hotel, I would always automatically look back and wonder how the other guys were doing. And it almost brought tears to your eyes. I tell you. It was the loneliest feeling in my life.

But upon arriving in Lubbock, I stayed with a doctor, Dr. Miner. Very nice person. He has a hospital there. A small hospital. That's where I stayed. I can recall that he made me as comfortable as anyone could. We visited some black elementary and high schools there, and I chatted with the students

But at nighttime, your mind is so entangled that you can't think right. It just blows your mind, and you try to lie down, and you can't lie down. You try to watch TV. It doesn't work. Radio doesn't work. You're saying to yourself, "What have I done? Out of all the teaching that my mother and father gave me, my teachers, my coaches, the whole lot. The olive branch. None of that's working. None of that's working."

It just petrifies you to know that you have to be split off from your team and treated as though you were someone from another world. It's not easy. It's not easy. I tell you, that hand on my chest, I still feel its imprint.

Ernie McCray,

Class of 1960, MED Elementary Education 1962

I was recruited to play basketball by a couple of schools, although the University of Arizona didn't go after me. But Allen Stanton met me at the YMCA after my senior year, and we did some one on one. He was a graduate student then and the freshman basketball coach.

They didn't recruit black players much. I was the only one on my team. There were two other black players my sophomore year, and they quit at about mid-semester. Eddie Mitchell and Elmer Green.

Hadie probably had to stay at people's homes when he played teams in Texas. When I got there, that was no longer the situation. But you could still feel the tension in places.

I remember our first year going to Texas Western, I believe. I was in a room, and I had a roommate, but it was a tacky room. I can't remember who was rooming with me, but I went into other rooms, and they weren't as tacky. It was like nobody had slept in there since George Washington, and it looked like they hadn't even changed the linen, even for George.

I didn't have a car, so after basketball practice at the university I used to run or jog home. It was just quicker, and it helped me get my thoughts together. About three times a week I was stopped by cops, who'd ask, "What are you running from?" I remember once coming from the Stone Avenue underpass, and some people drove by in a car and said, "Hey, you nigger," or something like that.

And I said, "Fuck you." And a cop was there tending to a dog that was hurt in the street, and he said, "Hey, you can't talk like that on a city street."

I said, "Hey, they were yelling at me." And he said, "If I wasn't tending to this dog, I'd haul your black ass into jail!"

The author will sign copies of his book at the Barnes & Noble at Foothills Mall from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, June 12. He will also present a lecture and discussion at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 19, at the José Galvez Gallery, 743 N. Fourth Ave., as part of Downtown Saturday Night.

The American Council on Education, representing more than 1,300 colleges and universities, reports minority enrollment on American campuses is not growing as much as it was earlier this decade. It grew less than 3 percent last year, compared with 7 percent in 1992.

Officials call the figures an "an early warning signal" for universities who take seriously their role of educating minorities.

While public universities still abide by a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing affirmative action based on race in admissions procedures, a backlash movement to curtail affirmative action, notably in Texas and California, seems to be having an ominous effect. For example, The Washington Post reports 21 black students have been admitted to UCLA's law school--an 80 percent drop from the previous year, and the lowest number of African Americans offered admission since 1970. The paper also reports 14 blacks have been admitted at the UC-Berkeley law school, down from 75 last year. And the drop in Hispanic enrollements mirrors that.

Meanwhile, at the University of Texas, Austin, 10 black students were admitted this year, compared with 65 last year. And nearly 400 fewer black and Hispanic students have been offered undergraudate admission, a 20 percent decline. TW

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