Colleges See Flare In Racial Incidents

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A couple of weeks into classes at the University of Maryland, a rope tied into what looked like a noose was found hanging outside the campus's African American cultural center. Campus police reports this month included two incidents of racially disparaging remarks, one written on a workstation and one on a bathroom stall in the student union.

This weekend, a swastika was spray-painted onto the car of a member of the Kappa Alpha fraternity, which one member described as a Christian fraternity.

It's not the only campus that has seen intolerance. A Maryland congressman is asking for an investigation into nooses left among the personal effects of a black cadet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and on the office floor of a staff member doing racial sensitivity training after the initial incident.

This month, more than 200 students at the University of Virginia protested cartoons depicting starving Ethiopians and a slave that ran in the student paper.

Because so many colleges are more racially and culturally diverse than ever, with students hanging out, dating and studying together, such incidents have left many wondering: What's going on?

And what are schools doing about it?

Some professors think there are more incidents than ever. Others think people are just more aware of them thanks to YouTube, Facebook and e-mail.

Either way, the incidents shock in part because many people expect colleges to be oases of tolerance and understanding. But school officials and scholars say it's natural that racial tensions sometimes flare on campuses because colleges reflect what's happening in the world around them; they're not isolated from economic and social rifts. And for many students, college is the first time they've met so many different types of people.

"Many people don't make that transition well," said Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College. She said she doesn't expect that to change anytime soon, with public schools less integrated than they were 20 years ago. In 2005, for example, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of black students but only 3 percent of white students attended public elementary and secondary schools that were 75 percent or more black.

Some students arrive with prejudices and stereotypes they don't even know they have, said William B. Harvey, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia.

Some incidents clearly are meant to intimidate or anger; some are meant to push buttons or make people laugh.

Sometimes students don't realize that an offhand comment or a Halloween costume could offend someone, several professors said. At a party on "politically incorrect" night last year at Macalester College in Minnesota, one guest came in blackface, another wore a noose and another arrived in white as a Ku Klux Klan member. Johns Hopkins University, the University of Texas at Austin, Trinity College and Clemson University, among others, also had parties that offended other students with racial stereotypes.

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