FEW AMERICAN colleges are immune to racial tensions, and race-related incidents tend to flare up at this or that campus practically every year. Still, the incidents at the University of Virginia in the past few weeks are unusual both in their number -- at least nine have been reported -- and in their rapid-fire occurrence so early in the school year. They have left the school founded by Thomas Jefferson to confront a noxious mix of mistrust, suspicion and recrimination.
African American students have been the targets in most, but not all, of the episodes. Several first-year black students reported that racial slurs were shouted at them. Other black students said racial epithets were written on their doors or message boards. In another incident, Asian American students said a man in a passing car had shouted a racially demeaning term at them. A number of parents of minority students have expressed concern for their children's safety.
Some students and faculty members suggest the incidents are symptoms of long-standing racial stresses on campus that are threatening to poison the atmosphere at one of the country's premier public universities. M. Rick Turner, dean of African American affairs, told The Post's Susan Kinzie that the racial climate on campus is the worst in his 18 years at the university. "I call it racial terrorism -- it's gone beyond racial incidents," he said.
To its credit, the university's administration is not dismissing the incidents as business as usual. U-Va.'s president, John T. Casteen III, has intensified his focus on the issue in recent weeks through e-mail communiques to faculty, students and staff members. In a dramatic speech scheduled on short notice at the university's Rotunda, Mr. Casteen sent out the right message: that racial intolerance subverts the university's core values and will not be tolerated. There is now a debate on campus about whether evidence of racial intolerance should be grounds for dismissal.
As the university grapples with this round of incidents, it might bear in mind the broader disconnect in racial perceptions -- a disconnect surely not peculiar to U-Va. Mr. Turner touched on it earlier this summer in an article he wrote on racial tensions entitled "A Disturbing Trend." In the article, he cited a survey commissioned by the university last year that found that 61 percent of U-Va. seniors describing themselves as white or "other" said they were satisfied with race relations on campus; just 29 percent of black seniors said they were.