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Racism Rears Its Head

November 16, 2006

Racism and ignorance churn on college campuses as surely as they do in society at large, with a number of high-profile incidents each year serving as a ready reminder lest anyone forget. In fact, experts say, some of the incidents stem from a type of cultural forgetfulness -- and a sense among certain students, sometimes willful, sometimes not, that they live in a world wherein it is no longer relevant to remember.

“Some of it is deliberately hostile, from the stories that I’ve read, but some of the incidents are motivated out of a kind of racial ignorance,” said Nina Lerman, chair of the history department and director of the race and ethnic studies program at Whitman College, in Washington, the site of a daylong seminar on race last week after students painted their skin black for a party. “Many white students believe that civil rights kind of fixed things, and that we’re supposed to live in a colorblind society. They don’t understand that there’s this history of offensiveness that still lives.”

“It’s a particular moment. As we live through our multiculturalism, at the same time, we are becoming rather distant and removed from some of the history of how we got to where we are,” said Ben Vinson, director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, the location of another controversial race-related incident this year. “Because you’re distant from the history, there’s a comfort level in expressing images or symbols that can be offensive to one group.”

Incidents of bias at college campuses are almost uniformly followed by reaffirmations of institutional commitments to diversity, “community forums” and seminars meant to facilitate discussions about race relations on campus, distress among at least some elements of the student body and a determination to move forward. Yet, racially motivated incidents or, at the very least, ignorance-fueled offenses, continue to occur. Among the high-profile incidents reported so far this fall:

  • A “Halloween in the ‘Hood” party sponsored by members of the Sigma Chi fraternity at Johns Hopkins featured among its decorations a plastic skeleton dressed in pirate garb hanging from a rope noose. The fraternity is under suspension as an investigation continues. President William R. Brody has since announced a number of new initiatives to address tolerance, including the adoption of a set of principles on equity, civility and respect detailing expectations for treatment of students, faculty and staff and the establishment of a university-wide commission to make recommendations for the implementation of the principles. Other initiatives include increased diversity training for students and employees and the development of new courses and workshops to increase students’ exposure to historical and contemporary understandings of racism.
  • Another Halloween party is under scrutiny at Trinity College, in Connecticut, where officials are investigating offensive costumes worn to a fraternity party -- pictures of which surfaced on a social networking Web site -- and two racial slurs that were scrawled on whiteboards outside of student rooms within the past month. A “Conversations on Community” initiative begun prior to the recent events is continuing, and Trinity’s dean of students is bringing together a university-wide group to examine college policies on harassment and response mechanisms to bias incidents.
  • At Texas A&M University, three students have withdrawn from the institution after a racist video they’d created was posted on YouTube. One of the students anonymously wrote a letter of apology to the student newspaper, The Battalion, saying that the video was a failed attempt at satire. “The motivation behind making the video was not to spew racial hatred,” says the letter, signed by “One sorry ex-Aggie,” “but rather to call attention to the diversity issues that exist at A&M.” The university held a forum to discuss the incident November 7, and President Robert M. Gates (who is leaving the institution to become U.S. secretary of defense) has directed the implementation of a new diversity plan developed over the past year.
  • On Saturday, students at Lehigh University, in Pennsylvania, found the head of an animal -- believed to be that of a lamb roasted at a tailgate party earlier in the day -- on the steps outside the Umoja House, a student multicultural housing option named after the Swahili word for “unity.” John Smeaton, the vice provost for student affairs, said the university police are still investigating whether the action was racially motivated. A forum on diversity planned prior to the event attracted several hundred students Tuesday, and Smeaton reaffirmed Lehigh’s commitment to existing diversity initiatives.
  • Students attending a "Survivor"-themed party in October at Whitman College painted themselves black. Ruth Wardwell, director of communications at Whitman, said the students did not know the historical significance of blackface and painted themselves to represent a team on the reality television show "Survivor," which famously chose to segregate its contestants this season. Classes were canceled last Thursday to allow students to attend a day-long seminar on diversity – as many as 1,300 students, faculty and staff from Whitman’s campus of 1,450 students showed up at any given point throughout the day, Wardwell said.

“I think this generation thinks pretty widely -- not students of color and not working-class students, but the students who think of themselves as middle class -- they tend to think that there’s an equal playing field. They believe in equality and they think we have it,” Whitman’s Lerman said. “We’re teaching them a very happy, diverse, multicultural American history, but we’re not actually teaching them very much about hate.”

Experts say that part of the problem is a failure in education. Yet, on the other hand, as one student points out, there coexists a lack of desire to be educated, a sense of willful blindness some students embrace. Emma Bayer, a senior at Trinity and one of the co-editors of the opinions section for The Trinity Tripod, said that some students who aren’t personally affected by racism simply don’t want to deal with it: “There is a split between the kids who are vocal and active at Trinity and then there are kids who care but don’t want to be active about it and then there are those who don’t care and don’t want to be asked to care,” she said.

But racism lives on, and by some accounts, may be on the rise. Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project, a hate group monitoring organization at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that colleges and schools are the third-most popular location for hate crimes in the country.  “The fact is that race issues are worsening in society and in the Western Hemisphere at large. It’s not a surprise that’s reflected on college campuses,” said Potok, who cited a rise in the total number of hate groups identified by the Intelligence Project from 602 in 2000 to 803 in 2005. “I don’t think campuses are a seething hotbed of racial hatred, but I also don’t think that they’re exempt from what goes on in a society at large,” Potok added.

“I think some people go to college with the intent to expand their horizons, to meet new people, to be exposed to different cultures. The important point is that not all people who go to college necessarily want to do that,” said Devin Dobson, a senior at Lehigh and coordinator of the Movement, a diversity awareness group. “You also have a huge element, especially at private institutions, of people who say, ‘I didn’t come to college for that. I came to college to get my degree with people that I know.’ ”

“That’s where higher education fails individuals,” said Dobson, who thinks institutions need to incorporate mandatory courses focusing on diversity and continuously sponsor programming and dialogue on diversity issues.

Not everyone thinks that these sorts of incidents are worthy of college-sanctioned interventions, however: A student editorial written by Bayer's co-opinions editor at the Trinity newspaper called the campus response there an "overreaction."

"Seriously, what the hell are you going to do about the schmuck who wrote 'nigger' on that girl's door -- find him and send him to sensitivity training or Diversity Day?" wrote Joe Tarzi. "There is nothing that you can do that will make the drunken ass who wrote on that girl's door any more tolerant -- least of all a pointless demonstration. If you do find him, you kick his ass, that's what you do, and if you don't want to, I will -- it was a horrible thing that he did. What you don't do is find ways to blame the administration, or Trinity as an entity, for the actions of one or a few morons."

 

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