Colleges See Flare In Racial Incidents
Campuses Struggle To Explain, Cope

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.

In some cases, "the power is in the silence that surrounds these symbols," said Sherrilyn Ifill, professor of law at the University of Maryland. "We don't talk openly about why a noose is such a provocative symbol because we don't talk much about our history of lynching."

Young people can sense it's a powerful symbol, she said. "I think they know it's racially charged, but they don't know its full history . . . how many lynchings there were, how many were there watching -- sometimes whole towns, including here in Maryland."

The rope at U-Md. made many think of the six black teenagers in Jena, La., who were charged with crimes after they fought a white student in December. The town had been through weeks of racial tensions; in September, white students had hung nooses from a tree.

"My question is: What happened between September and December" as the events in Jena escalated, Tatum asked, "in a proactive way, to improve race relations?"

Schools aren't doing well at this, said Harvey, who came to U-Va. from the American Council on Education. "I don't know of a single place that's doing as well as it could be, or should be, doing."

Robert M. Moore III, associate professor and chairman of the sociology department at Frostburg State University, said too often what administrators do is "just try to keep the lid on things. . . . They do sensitivity stuff, orientation classes that all students are required to take, to be sensitive to the differences in other people in our society." That's good, he said, "but it doesn't go far enough," doesn't deal with the tougher issues.

Some school officials said those kinds of talks need to be done well in order to engage students rather than make them feel as if they're sitting through a canned lecture or being told how to think. That can backfire -- like the "politically incorrect" party with students making fun of the whole idea.

Still, several professors said college is the perfect place to challenge people to talk about difficult subjects and learn about the unfamiliar. Studies have shown that students are more tolerant after they graduate, Moore said.

At Frostburg, he said, administrators have shown a commitment by embedding these topics in the curriculum.

At U-Md., hate incidents are actually down in 2007 compared with this time last year, said Paul Dillon, a spokesman for the university police. But when they do happen, he said, they're taken seriously and investigated.

U-Md. has had two forums for students and others to talk about race since the noose was found, with about 50 to 70 people at each forum. A student group is asking people on campus to submit stories online about their experiences with discrimination.

At Johns Hopkins, the school year began with new students discussing Tatum's book, "Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" It was the first time all freshmen were given a summer reading assignment and was part of an effort to get students thinking about diversity issues as soon as they got to campus.

After its party last year, administrators set up a commission, wrote a set of principles on equity, are working with faculty to add more race-related content to the curriculum and are talking with student groups about these topics.

The Coast Guard Academy will have race relations seminars and training in the coming months.

Some schools, including U-Va., have added a "chief diversity officer." Harvey started after a series of incidents two years ago -- including threats targeting blacks scrawled on walls and a racist note left on a black student's car.

Since then, Harvey said, the university has added an annual symposium to talk about race as school starts and has created a council to try to prevent problems. U-Va. also has added an incident reporting line. (By the morning after the first cartoon appeared, Harvey said, 85 calls about it had been received.)

"Honestly," he said, "it only begins to scratch the surface in terms of what needs to be done."

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