Take a look at the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures and chances are you’ll be surprised by the size of South Dakota’s African-American population—a mere 0.6 percent of a total population of 754,844.
Applying the rule of proportional representation to South Dakota State University’s sports teams, one’d expect the university to have virtually no African-American athlete. Yes?
Wrong. Contrary to popular perception, African-Americans make up approximately 14 percent of both the football and basketball teams.
“Last year, we had 13 African-American players. And this year, we have 14 on our team,” said John Stiegelmeier, head football coach. 14 out of 100 in the football team and two out of 15 players in the basketball team are African-American.
Judging by statewide statistics, the African-American population is certainly well represented in the university’s athletic division.
The same isn’t true, however, for the academic departments. Out of 10, 561 students, only 78 are African-American.
A key reason for this low number is that the university faces an uphill battle in wooing African-American students. The campus’ nearly 90 percent white population leads most minority students to perceive South Dakota State University as a culturally unconducive environment for them.
A large number of African-American students on campus are here, largely for sports, because of the university’s ongoing drive to promote diversity in education.
Last year, the university appointed its first official minority student recruiter, whose job, akin to that of a corporate head-hunter’s, is to ferret out athletically-talented students from all over the country.
Speaking about his journey from the West Coast to the heart of the Midwest, 22-year-old Anthony Robinson said, “I was in California when I received a call from a recruiter, asking me if I’d like to play football for South Dakota State University after I was done with junior college. I was being offered a scholarship. So, I took it up.” Sylvester Walker, a student assistant on the men’s basketball team, is also here on an athletic scholarship.
As far as living in the prairies goes, most American-American students seem to agree that South Dakota is a good place to live in (albeit, a little too quite), though the absence of a broad base of support groups makes them feel alienated.
Though student organizations such as the Black Student Alliance and the university’s “minority peer mentor program” are aimed at helping minority students make a smooth transition to the socio-cultural life in South Dakota, most African-American students feel that the state, as a whole, doesn’t hold enough attractions for them.
One student remarked, “I hadn’t heard of South Dakota, actually. When I first got here, I suffered a culture shock because I didn’t see too many of my race here.” Another said, “There’s nothing for me here, socially, in terms of music, clubs, or radio stations.”
Explaining why most African-American students feel alienated, C. D. Douglas, assistant director of Student Activities and Multicultural Affairs, said, “How would you feel if there were just three of you in a party and the remaining 97 people were different? Would you be at ease, if you were in the midst of people who had different conversation pieces, different social etiquette, and even different tastes in music?”
Citing an incident of racial prejudice in town, he said, “A few years ago, an African-American student had told me that one day, when he was walking down the street, a white motorist shouted the N***** word at him as he sped away. The good news is that since then, I haven’t heard of something like this. This means that we have made some progress.”
To prevent such incidents from recurring, the university set up the Office for Diversity Enhancement in 1999, which together with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, is actively engaged in bringing about multiculturalism within the university community.
“Diversity in education has significant, practical, cognitive, and social benefits for students and the community as a whole,” Dr. Allen Branum, Director for Diversity Enhancement said.