Pius A. Uzamere II, a sophomore from New Castle, Pa., won the third annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oratory Contest last Wednesday (March 13). Uzamere, who is majoring in EECS, received a $300 prize.
The four finalists each spoke for five minutes in Room 66-110, relating their own experiences with racism to the theme of this year's MLK Celebration, "From Dreams to Reality: the Illusion of Full Inclusion."
The runner-up, Leah S. Schmelzer of Melville, N.Y., a senior majoring in mathematics, received $100. The other finalists, Selam Daniel of Arlington, Texas, a senior majoring in chemical engineering, and Andres Ramirez, a freshman from Grand Prairie, Texas, each received an honorable mention prize of $50.
The judges were Professor Wesley L. Harris of aeronautics and astronautics; Eric Caulfield, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science; Undergraduate Association president Jaime E. Devereaux, a senior in aeronautics and astronautics; Assistant Dean Katherine O'Dair; Campus Police Sgt. Cheryl Vossmer; MLK Visiting Scholar Edna Ambundo; and Associate Dean Leo Osgood Jr., director of the Office of Minority Education (OME) and co-chair of the MLK Celebration Committee.
The contest was organized by two seniors in electrical engineering and computer science, Kedra Newsom and Carl E. Patten II, student members of the MLK Celebration Committee, which sponsored the event.
Uzamere's winning speech follows:
"Good evening. My name is Pius Afrikase Uyiosa Uzamere II. I am a proud African-American male. My father is Nigerian and black, while my mother is American and white. I can vote. I attend the best school in the world. My roommate is white and my friends span all different races. I use the same water fountains as anyone else. No one in my family has ever undergone the tragedy of involuntary servitude. No one has ever called me nigger to my face. I suspect that few people at MIT have the audacity to ever say such a thing to me in person.
"So I'm a black male and I have many opportunities. Right now, in the year 2002, almost four decades after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., are blacks in this country considered a mainstream part of society? Is my race fully included here?
"I think that most people outside of my race feel that the answer to this question is yes. So many people pay lip service to the equal treatment of all races that it must be true. As a matter of fact, during my senior year of high school, I spent two hours trying to convince one of my white teachers that racism still exists in this country.
"Despite what others may think, I believe that the answer is no. Full inclusion of black people in America is an illusion. You don't believe me? Perhaps I should reintroduce myself.
INCLUSION IS AN ILLUSION
"My name is Pius. I asked a girl from a different race out once and she told me that it wouldn't work because I was black. In the last presidential election, people of my race were systematically turned away from the polls in Florida. I've had only one black teacher in my entire life, including here. In high school, I was the only black person in my honors classes even though my school had 400 black students. I'm a black male. On any given day, nearly one in eight of us aged 20 to 34 are in jail or prison. I've walked into stores with a suit on and still had nervous clerks eyeing me suspiciously, following me from behind, and wondering whether I'm going to steal the trinkets they want to sell me. Last year, I was walking down Amherst Alley on a cold day and a white fraternity member, a person whom I had never met, threw water balloons at me from a window and shouted, 'I hate you. I f---ing hate you!'
"So do I feel included? Not really. We've come a long way, to be sure. Dr. King's efforts have pushed us incredibly far, especially with respect to legislative remedies for the problem. However, I fear that the social taboo that now prevents most racists from espousing their hateful beliefs leads to a dangerous condition--one where the racism is subtle and taken for granted. No, in today's world, racism usually isn't apparent from what people say to your face. Rather it's what they say behind your back, it's how they act with their friends in private, it's the things they do without thinking. Often, the prejudices I see are so well-ingrained in the characters of the people I talk to, that they say something patently offensive and obviously have no idea that they said anything wrong. The problem of eliminating the racist preconceptions that many have is a hard problem, much harder than the problem of eliminating racist laws.
SELF SEGREGATING CAMPUS
"I wish I had the full solution to the problem. But I don't. Briefly though, I'll try my hand at a piece of the solution. Here at MIT, I think that a great barrier that needs to be overcome is the problem of self-segregation. A friend of mine made the comment that 'voluntary segregation (on this campus) is much more about selecting who you are not friends with rather than who you are friends with.'
"That's really important. Sure, it's not a sin to have friends of only a certain race. Unfortunately, most of these self-segregated groups are also exclusive when it comes to choosing friends. Furthermore, in most cases, it's indicative of more deeply rooted issues. As I said, I think most people here would find it pretty unacceptable for someone to call me a nigger in public. However, I suspect that many of the people who would decry such a blatant display of racism would also be the same people who won't talk to me when they are with friends of their own race. Some of these same people find the thought of dating someone of my race absolutely unthinkable. Many of these same people, whether they say it or not, are surprised to find that I'm black and I don't speak ebonics. These are the same people who look at the ceiling and pretend they don't see me when I pass them in the Infinite Corridor, even though I live down the hall.
"This is a big problem that cuts across most minority groups here at MIT. Black, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Indian, you name it. Interestingly enough, I've found that, in general, the race least guilty of this on campus is the 'majority'--white people. The minorities tend to be the most exclusive in my experience. For an example, within my own race, I've witnessed black cliques enter a room of people they don't know and be rather unfriendly to white people who approach them. Not overtly rude, of course, but they make very little effort to make these people feel welcome. Yet, the first new black person to approach them is quickly befriended by the group.
"This self-segregating behavior hurts much more than it helps. Fine, self-segregation allows you to stay within your comfort zone. Big deal. Meanwhile, you serve to alienate others and perpetuate any negative stereotypes they may have of people in your group. The main root of most of the ignorant prejudices people have is a lack of communication. It's hard to maintain ignorant preconceptions of people after you actually talk to them regularly. I think that if we can overcome this issue in our community, we'll go a long way to improving the inclusion we feel in our daily lives."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 20, 2002.