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Diversity at Stony Brook University 41 years after being called a “racist school”

An image of distinguished professor and artist Howardena Pindell displaying her first exhibition as an assistant professor at Stony Brook University in 1980. In her 41 year-tenure, the school has developed to become one of the most diverse in the nation. TIM GIORLANDO/THE STATESMAN

In the 1980s, Howardena Pindell, a Black professor in the Department of Art at Stony Brook University, was the victim of a hate crime in her office on campus. 

The day after appearing on a television program for WLIW2, Long Island’s PBS Station, Pindell returned back to campus to find black paint thrown across her door by students. They also poured acid under the door of the office next to hers, one that belonged to a Jewish professor. 

Recent incidents of racism and antisemitism on Stony Brook’s campus demonstrate that Pindell’s experience is still relevant today.

“When I first joined the faculty, the racism of the students was pretty intense,” Pindell said. “I remember that some of the Black male students were afraid of the white male students, and the white male students would walk around with a lot of swagger.”

Pindell recounted that she experienced a great deal of hatred from Stony Brook students during her 44 years of teaching, especially after her television program where she discussed racial issues on Long Island. 

Pindell said that upon filing a complaint about what had happened to her office door, the University “didn’t do anything. I don’t think they were set up to do anything; there was no attempt to do anything.”

On Feb. 4, 1982, The Stony Brook Press released an article discussing racism at Stony Brook and in the Undergraduate Student Government. The article mentions how the school was not as diverse as it should have been, and students who were considered a minority on campus had to deal with a large amount of discrimination. 

The Statesman could not find any records of student enrollment by race or ethnicity from the 1980s. But in 1995, 10% of students identified as Black or African American, 18.9% identified as Asian and 49.3% were white. 

Forty-one years later, students and faculty members are reflecting on whether Stony Brook has changed.

According to Stony Brook’s Fall Headcount Enrollment by Any Indicated Race/Ethnicity, in 2022, less than 10% of students identified as Black or African American and 14.9% were Hispanic or Latino. Most of Stony Brook’s population was either Asian, making up 44.2%, or white, making up 37.2% of the student population.

Jonathan Friedman, a 1977 Stony Brook alumnus and lecturer for the honors and undergraduate colleges, feels that the university makes a continuous effort to be as diverse as possible.

“The administration really puts an emphasis on diversity, they really try hard to recruit a diverse class of students and hire a diverse group of faculty members,” Friedman said. “So you get the best of both worlds.” 

Pindell sees the progress herself. 

“It’s much more diverse as a campus now,” Pindell said. “I see students are friendly with each other. You didn’t really see that much before early on.” 

Sydney Bush, a senior sociology major with a minor in Africana studies, disagrees. 

“Racism here is not an individual experience at all. [It] isn’t a one time thing,” Bush said. “[It] is something that is recurring and ingrained in the culture of Stony Brook University.”

On Feb. 9 of this year, Bush had a verbal altercation with one of her suitemates in Tubman Hall. Bush said her suitemate insulted her by saying “the monkey is mad because she can’t get her bananas.” In the past, this phrase was used by white supremacists in order to dehumanize and objectify Black people.

Bush said the University’s response failed to meet her expectations — much like what happened to Pindell in the 1980s.

Unsatisfied with the University, Bush took matters into her own hands. She posted her story on Instagram, and within days received nearly 3,000 likes and over 100 comments. 

“It wasn’t until I took to social media that I started receiving an overwhelming amount of administrators contacting me,” she said. 

Bush said that she told her residential hall director about the situation, who responded to her later in the day. After contacting the hall director and posting about the incident online, the suitemate was removed from the suite and an incident report was filed. 

“Students are being more proactive with whatever issues they have,” Vivianne Huang, a senior business management and applied math and statistics major, said.  “In terms of Stony Brook responding to them, I think they’re not doing as much as they should be doing.”  

Friedman feels the opposite. 

“I’m pretty confident in saying the school will respond to the needs of the students, whatever those needs are,” he said.

Despite conflicting standpoints on the University’s progress over the past four decades, Pindell recognized the positive changes she has seen. 

“The kids have become nicer as people, and I think partly because the campus is in itself more diversified — so they’re in an environment that now is comfortable — Stony Brook is kind of an oasis of civility,” Pindell said.  

Corrections 2/21/2023: A previous version of this article misspelled Howardena Pindell’s first name and Vivianne Huang’s last name. Bush’s suitemate was named without opportunity to comment.

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Mariam Guirgis, Assistant News Editor
Mariam is an Assistant News Editor at The Statesman. She is a second-year journalism minoring in political science. When she's not editing news articles, she is deeply involved with her Church community, planning events and hanging out with friends.
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