ITHACA, N.Y. -- "My talk today will be mostly from the vantage point of black Americans, which, of course, is my perspective. But I want to be clear that I view the celebration of diversity to be inclusive of all groups in our society." The Hon. Harry Edwards '62, chief judge emeritus, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, prefaced his speech with these words April 30 when he spoke about his experiences as an African-American student during the 1960s and about issues facing minority students, then and now.
Edwards, who received a standing ovation after his speech in Bartels Hall at Cornell University, was one of several keynote speakers at last weekend's conference, "Cornell Mosaic: Celebrating Diversity and Advancing Inclusion."
The landmark three-day event, sponsored by the Minority Alumni Initiatives Implementation Committee, a subcommittee of the University Board of Trustees, brought together more than 600 students, faculty, staff and Cornell alumni from different minority backgrounds.
Edwards, true to his judicial background, discussed two famous Supreme Court cases that dealt with race relations: the 1857 Dred Scott case and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. In the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court found that African Americans were "a subordinate class . . . altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations" and, therefore, were not guaranteed equal rights under the Constitution. According to Edwards, that is "a portrayal that we are still trying to eradicate 150 years later."
He went on to discuss his own experiences as a young black student at Cornell, from "back-handed" compliments about how well he had done despite his background to the social dilemma of being one of only a handful of black students at a time when interracial dating was all but forbidden.
"Although we were accepted by our peers and professors, it was not lost on us that most of the white people with whom we interacted honestly believed that most black people were not worthy of an education at an Ivy League school," he explained.
Turning his focus to the present, Edwards praised affirmative action programs as one of the best ways to fight racial bias and prejudice in today's society. "Because of these race-conscious actions, countless [minority students] have succeeded with great distinction in educational and employment situations that were formerly denied to them," he said.
However, Edwards acknowledged that such programs also have created additional problems, leading some nonminority students to believe that minorities admitted through affirmative action are not equally qualified. "So we have a choice of stigmas: one that comes with inclusion and one that comes with exclusion," he explained. "I'll take inclusion any day."
Edwards urged the audience to take steps toward eradicating inequality, which still exists in our society. Specifically, he mentioned improving the opportunities in inner-city schools, putting an end to self-segregation and creating more opportunities for mentoring and networking relationships in minority communities.
He also praised the move toward what he called a "valuing our identities" approach to racial integration, in which people take pride in their individual heritage and culture while still participating equally in society. "Integration does not require assimilation," he explained. "It can be born of open and respectful exchange of ideas and opinions."
According to Deniqua Crichlow '99, director of Minority Alumni Programs in the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development, the goal of the conference was to "get people reconnected to the university." It featured a variety of workshops on minority-related issues, as well as networking events, such as the Alumni Leadership Development Institute that "demystified the process of lifelong engagement with Cornell" through participation in groups, such as the Board of Trustees and the President's Council of Cornell Women.
Reaction from participants in the conference was overwhelmingly positive. "It's a great success, and it's a great opportunity for minority students," said Jennifer Saint-Preux '08. "Hopefully we can continue to do this and make it bigger."
Angela Mwanza, MBA '00, was impressed with the amount of networking opportunities that were provided. "I've never seen any other university try so hard to do something this important. So I'm really pleased to see that it's my university doing it," she said.
Courtney Potts is a student intern at the Cornell News Service.