Students must care to defeat MachineBy Nathan James | 03/25/2015 11:51pm
One of the most pleasant surprises of this school year was Elliot Spillers’ election as SGA President, marking the first time in almost 40 years that an African American student has filled that role. Another surprise came shortly after, when Spillers made surprisingly conciliatory statements about the Machine – the organization most responsible for widespread exclusion of nonwhites in the SGA.
“The entire Machine is not a bad organization,” Spillers said in an interview. “It took members within that organization to stand beside me and go against the grain and get me elected to this office. Just like the rest of us on campus, they’re ready for change.”
Spillers’ tone is surprising, because most progressives on campus have been unilaterally critical of the Machine. It is, after all, an organization that has actively cultivated racial inequality in student government, stood in the way of social progress on campus, and even (reportedly) threatened its opponents with physical violence. For the majority of students who aren’t privy to the Machine’s internal dialogue, it’s surprising to learn some members of the Machine are interested in change.
However, strange as Spillers’ comments seem, they reflect an attitude that other progressives on campus should try and emulate. Even for those of us who are deeply disturbed by the Machine and see it as a roadblock to equality on campus, it’s important to realize that progress can be accomplished in spite of, and sometimes even because of the Machine.
To clarify, a few years ago many thought racist influences in the Greek system would never allow black students admittance to traditionally white sororities. However, a concerted effort by students led to the partial and growing integration of white sororities, without removing the Machine from its position of power. And this year Elliot Spillers defied a decades-long pattern of racial purity in the SGA – again, not by dismantling the Machine, but by circumventing and overcoming its racist elements.
These examples show the racist influences within the Machine are not all-powerful. And they indicate that cooperation with the Machine’s non-racist element may actually be a productive route to progress.
The thing to realize is the Machine can’t be completely eradicated from campus politics. The Machine and the SGA have been so intertwined for so long that extracting the one from the other isn’t really feasible. Furthermore, as long as Greek organizations exist on campus, they’ll organize to protect their interests. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So instead of trying to “stop,” “eradicate” or somehow “remove” the Machine, progressive students should focus on ensuring that the Machine’s role on campus is a healthy one.
Here’s what has to happen for the Machine to adopt a healthier role on campus. First, non-Greek students must be able to overcome voting apathy and introduce more non-Greek students to the SGA. Working alongside Machine representatives, these non-Greek representatives will better represent student interests. And second, students must continue to observe and combat overt racism on campus, as they have in recent years.
We know now that when students take a stand, they can help to subvert and reform the worst elements of the Machine. Kudos to Spillers for outlining this route to progress and kudos to members of the Machine who are genuinely committed to equality and change.
Nathan James is a senior majoring in psychology. His column runs weekly.