Hello, my name is Arthur Mingo and I am the only African-American in the class of 2014 at Southern Illinois University, School of Law. This fact may seem shocking to you because I was admitted to the law school more than a year after our country elected its first African-American president. Despite what some would see as an anomaly, however, I see normality. According to LSAC, the organization that administers the LSAT nationally, Caucasians account for 66 percent of LSAT applicants and African-Americans a miserly 12 percent, which may explain, in part, the low number of African-Americans in law schools. Nevertheless, it was still shocking to be the only African-American in a class of 118 law students. I have been one of a few African-Americans in different settings, but I have never been the entire population before. I am writing this article to share some of the challenges, interesting situations and the lonely moments which are the by-product of being one of one.
During a class discussion in my first year, the conversation turned to public policy, and we talked about urban culture and inner city people. It took a great deal of restraint not to get angry during those discussions. Although some people assign literal definitions to the terms urban culture and inner city people where urban culture is the culture of a city and inner city people are people who live in the inner most part of the city, in my experience these phrases are code words for African-Americans or minorities. The next time you go to a bookstore, ask to look at the urban section and notice how the cover art consists mainly of African-Americans. After probing certain classmates about their conceptions that urban culture and inner city people never produced anything of value, they admitted not knowing anyone from the inner city and not knowing anything substantive about urban culture apart from what they saw on television. During one of these discussions I inquired as to the racial demographic of inner city people so we might have a more open and honest discussion. My classmates refused to answer. The purpose of my question was to challenge my classmate to see past easy stereotypes. Afterward, a fellow classmate was willing to discuss the high drug and crime rate in her own predominantly Caucasian hometown. Despite being genuinely disturbed by the fact that some of my classmates, had such narrow views of race and crime, I was pleased to see other students engaging in an open discussion about these topics.
One of the most interesting experiences I had occurred while giving a tour of the law school to a prospective African-American student. Neither the prospective student nor his family had seen an African-American student at the school. (I knew they had not because the other four African-American law students were in class). When his mother made the connection that I was a law student, her face lit up like that of a child on Christmas day and she immediately hugged me. His father shook my hand for what to me seemed like a minute while smiling from ear to ear as if I were the bee’s knees. During the tour, as we walked through the law school, my fellow first year students congratulated me for trying to bring in more African-American students. The most interesting part of the tour, however, was the end, when I tried to make one final pitch for the law school. I extolled the virtues of the school but at the end of the pitch I tried as best as I could to address what I thought was the “elephant” in the room, the monochromatic nature of the school. I told the prospective student that our school is like a family and the make-up of the class does not hinder a student’s ability to learn the law. My last admonishment to the prospective student was that diversity takes many forms and he should not to let one deficiency affect his choice.
When I am by myself at school, I grapple with the concept of the white guy compliment. The white guy compliment (WGC) has many faces but essentially it is: “You are the whitest black guy I know;” “You are not like other black people”; or “You are more white than me.” I know the WGC is meant to have positive connotations; however, it is a compliment I chafe at. It rubs me the wrong way because I do not like the implication that to be a “good” black guy is to be a white guy. Regardless of my trepidation toward the compliment I understand what my classmates mean. They mean I do not fit the negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Unfortunately, being one of one in my class meant any WGC had to be directed toward me and because I heard the WGC so often, I was unable to suppress the inherent turmoil the compliment brings me. I have never been one to dwell long on emotional conflicts but the deluge of WGC caused me angst as I struggled with a number of questions. I wondered how to stay true to who I am as an individual and how to portray African-Americans in a more positive light; is it my burden to change the opinion of others concerning African-Americans and if it is my burden, to what lengths am I charged to go to defend African-Americans. These questions and others plagued me and to this day continue to plague me. I have not arrived at any answers and I do not think I will in the near future but I know this internal, and now external, conversation I am having about my place in society is making me a better person and hopefully will help others grappling with the same issues.
Even with these experiences I would still make SIU my choice for law school. I selected SIU because I have, for the majority of my life, lived in Cook County. Although I love my home town of Calumet City, I understand life in the shadow of Chicago is not the entire story of Illinois. I have been slowly making my way downstate by going to the University of Illinois Springfield and learning about Central Illinois. Southern Illinois University has given me the chance to learn about a people and culture I otherwise would never have known. While at SIU, I have become friends with students from Columbia and Korea, learned about life in Alaska, and been utterly beguiled by Southern Illinois. Southern Illinois has shown me the beauty of the outdoors in Little Grand Canyon, the unyielding determination of General John A. Logan and his ultimatum during the Civil War, and the humanity of people who during times of distress pull together to help their neighbors.
I am the only African-American in my class and it is a fact I cannot change. I accepted that fact after meeting my entire class for the first time. We, as a country, benefit from a diverse legal system with attorneys able to relate to clients from all walks of life. Diversity for the sake of rankings and status is pointless, but diversity that endeavors to share the best of our humanity benefits us all. ■