Campus Voices: Race and the ASG president

Nomaan Merchant

Last Wednesday, Neal Sales-Griffin was sworn in as the first black president of Associated Student Government in 11 years.

Many issues were raised by students and the candidates themselves during the short campaign, but race wasn’t one of them. In fact, Sales-Griffin, a SESP junior, said he didn’t know he was the first black candidate to win the presidency since 1998 until he read about it in The Daily’s story on the runoff.

Even when they’re not verbalized, however, racial issues permeate student life on campus. NU’s high level of cultural self-segregation is easy enough to recognize; just take a walk down Sheridan Road or look around a dining hall. Certain groups, fraternities and events attract certain people and not others. And the last three ASG presidents have been white males.

Will a black ASG president help weaken these boundaries? It’s a tough question, but one that’s necessary to ask.

The last black president of ASG was Yetu Robinson, SESP ’98. After Stanford Law School and a few career stops, Robinson now works in Fisk Hall as the sales manager for the Medill School of Journalism’s Media Management Center.

Two similarities stand out between the 1997 and 2008 races. First, Robinson won a race against four other candidates, though he didn’t require a runoff. And Robinson campaigned on a platform entitled “NUnity,” which (in language that sounds similar to Sales-Griffin’s) called for collaboration between ASG, students and administrators.

“I think Neal had a very good message in terms of trying to increase transparency of ASG and trying to make a cohesive and unified student body through ASG,” Robinson said last week. “Those were good messages, and those were good platforms that students sort of go for.”

Robinson called race a “moot issue” within ASG during his time as president.

“I think I was just as able to participate and communicate with members of the Hillel community as I was with FMO members as I was with Casa Hispana (now Alianza) members,” Robinson said. “I just think it’s about being able to connect, being able to bring your message to groups and being able to bring their message back to ASG and the greater community.”

Robinson said his extensive experience in ASG helped him work as president with senators and student groups. As a junior, Robinson was speaker of the Senate, and he served as rules chairman the year before. Even so, Robinson said being aware of racial stereotypes made him “work a bit harder.”

“It was true, a lot of times, maybe people hadn’t worked with a black male before, and it’s kind of sad that we’re at Northwestern and those sorts of instances still occur,” Robinson said. “But I was determined to get things done and not let things like that get in the way. And I think people saw that and we got past it if there was a problem.”

Sales-Griffin, who is also part-Filipino and part-Honduran, pointed out in an interview last week that blacks and other minorities have held other significant leadership positions on campus. One of his goals, he said, is to involve not only blacks, but more female students and cultural groups, with ASG.

“They need to know why they should care,” Sales-Griffin said. “Before I could tell them who to vote for, I needed to tell them why to vote.”

ASG represents and funds a wide range of student groups, where some gain money at others’ expense, and this process can inevitably cause questions of bias. Having a black president will not prevent these questions. But achieving diversity at the top of ASG can only help.

– Nomaan MerchantMedill juniorManaging editor