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Sept. 20 was a huge day for Georgetown’s black community.
More than 100 people turned out for an all-day Jena Six rally and candlelight vigil on campus. Students wore black T-shirts to show solidarity. And best of all, the media were everywhere: Local ABC and NBC correspondents reported from campus. People were hopeful the student newspaper, The Hoya, which, according to many students, rarely covered black issues, was writing a sizable story.
The high would soon dissipate. But it showed Georgetown’s NAACP chapter, which organized the event, was back. For years, the group was alternately inactive, disappointing, and even sort-of defunct. Now with President Ellie Gunderson in charge, things were starting to happen.
This fall, the sophomore has gained quite the reputation, and anyone who knows a little about her story—and many people on campus do—understands why.
A few highlights from the bio: Gunderson’s from a predominantly black working-class suburb of Detroit; she aspires to be a civil rights lawyer, either at the Southern Poverty Law Center or the NAACP; she never planned to be the group’s president this year, but someone nominated her, and she cared about the issues. She figured, Why not?
One last thing: Gunderson is white. Listen to her speak, and you might never know. Her vocal inflection is unmistakably “urban.”
She knows this and is not looking to change it. “I bet if I lived in a white neighborhood and only talked to white people for the next 20 years, my voice would probably sound different. But it’s not something I could intentionally do.”
Gunderson has always thrown people a bit. When she arrived on campus, black people immediately wondered if her voice, her mannerisms, and her natural inclination to have black friends were the calling cards of a phony. It didn’t take long to convince people they weren’t. Whites, she says, are usually far more confused by her demeanor..
As for personal identity issues, she says she got over them a long time ago.
“It was hard when you’re trying to find yourself in middle school. I didn’t realize I was always known as the white girl. By the time I got to high school, it was normal,” she says.
Now black students generally regard Gunderson as she regards herself: the sum of her parts. She has civil rights experiences—both participating in diversity-related groups in high school and in watching her many black friends endure prejudice. And, most important, she understands what it feels like to look around and only see people who don’t look like you. After all, that was her experience up until last year.
“I definitely speak my mind, and I don’t feel like it has to be calculated,” she says. “My race has been an issue my whole life.”
Her outspokenness has come in handy this fall during a lingering flap with The Hoya.
The morning after the Jena Six rally, students opened Georgetown’s “newspaper of record since 1920” to find coverage of their event in the “News in Brief” section, while a rally protesting the university’s alcohol policy carried the front page.
Typical, many people in the black community said: Alcohol, they contended, is a white issue and, therefore, of interest to the mainstream. On the other hand, a protest about racial injustice in the South (with larger implications for African-Americans nationwide) is decidedly a black issue and, thus, less weighty.
Hoya editor Max Sarinsky says he now believes the Jena Six story should have been more than a brief. Still, the alcohol story was more significant, he says.
“It’s a somewhat sad reality, but the sense that I got and I continue to get largely is that a lot of campus is kind of ambivalent to this [Jena Six] rally and to the events surrounding it. I think as a newspaper, you have to reflect that to an extent,” Sarinsky says. “I don’t think it’s our job to say: Here’s what you should care about.”
Talk to African-American Georgetown students, and you hear the same complaint over and over again: Black students only make The Hoya’s front page when the story’s about some violent incident.
“We feel like we lack representation,” says NAACP treasurer Alessandra Brown. “They basically try to tell us the things that are relevant to us aren’t relevant to Georgetown.”
For his part, Sarinsky says incidents of violence are almost always front-page stories. After all, they don’t happen very frequently at Georgetown.
There is overt racism on campus, say students Lauren Lightfoot, Simone Dyson, and Erica Beal, who are all sophomores (and
African-American). In groups, they’ve shown up to what they call “white parties,” and they’re told the party’s all full, but when they peek in, the dance floor’s empty and three people are dancing by a couch. Or they get into the party and hear students say there’s “an invasion” of black people.
Last spring, amid negative press about fights between black students and others coming in from off-campus, 10 black seniors called a meeting titled “Are Black Hoyas a Dying Breed?”
A Facebook group advertising the event included this description: “Alumni and members of the administration have argued that the recent violence is the natural result of too many black Hoyas on campus, ‘ghetto-fying’ Georgetown. Solutions being considered are: Facebook Profiling—Creating a watch list of black students who seem dangerous, a permanent cap on the number of black students admitted that equals less than 7%, and banning black parties.”
In this climate, Gunderson’s election last year unsettled some black students. The community was in crisis mode, and then, here comes a white girl to lead up the on-campus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Symbolically, that didn’t look too good.
“Some people don’t know that white people were a part of the formation of the NAACP,” says group treasurer Brown. “Even if they do know, they may want a black leader.”
But by the start of this school year, the contentious mood within the black community had died down. When The Hoya’s lack of coverage flared things up, it was the first real test of Gunderson’s leadership.
In the issue of the Hoya that followed the Jena Six news brief, the top column on the “Viewpoint” page was headlined “Jena Rhetoric Stops Progress, Stifles Debate.” Opinion writer D. Pierce Nixon wrote, essentially, that he doesn’t believe in race, and therefore he feels like people “should be less concerned with Jena Six’s convictions than with whatever caused so much violence and hate in such a small town in the first place.”
Nixon now says he purposely exaggerated his position to incite debate. He knows race matters, but he believes it shouldn’t, and he thinks the Jena Six controversy just reaffirmed racial divisions.
The day the story came out, the NAACP had a meeting. Everyone in attendance railed against Nixon’s column and the paper’s treatment of black students in general. Several responses were proposed, among them: Vandalize copies of the paper.
Gunderson says most people there argued that wasn’t a productive way to deal with the situation. Still, people wrote racist on several dozen copies of The Hoya, and the hoya is racist was chalked in a prominent square on campus. Someone also threw a rock at editor Sarinsky’s dorm window. Gunderson says she has no idea who did this, or if it was related to the Jena Six coverage.
In reaction, Gunderson fired off an e-mail to the NAACP chapter, writing: “It is my opinion that this blanket attack on The Hoya was neither effective, nor educational.…It feeds into what Pierce Nixon was arguing in his viewpoint—that people slap a ‘racist’ label on everything and don’t have an actual dialogue about the issues.”
By this time, Gunderson and Nixon had already been in touch, and over the next week or so, they sent lengthy e-mails, chatted on Gmail for several hours, and met up a few times.
“It was really interesting how she and I went from talking about, Ellie, people are throwing rocks through my editor’s window, can you make them stop? to, Where do we go from here?” Nixon says.
They both agreed The Hoya should reach out to minority clubs. Nixon says he used to think that would be offensive, essentially saying, “We need people like you.”
The debate about the rally and The Hoya eventually made its way to a discussion attended by at least 100 students in October. Now, people on campus seem talked-out about Jena Six. But the NAACP is keeping busy: Al Sharpton is scheduled to visit Washington, a freed death-row inmate was slated to talk on campus this week, and the group’s been asked to participate in a few other events.
Gunderson herself got a call from a friend at Howard University. His group was having a small forum about race issues: segregation in D.C., hate crimes on college campuses, and interracial relationships, and “he told me to just find some random white people and bring them to Howard,” she says, laughing.
Gunderson plans to attend. Technically, she fits the bill.