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The case for an actual `Racism 101'

THE title of a recent episode of the public broadcasting documentary series ``Frontline'' - dubbed ``Racism 101'' - suggests that any serious student is advised to enroll in ``Racism 201, 301,'' and perhaps ``401'' if he or she wishes to understand the rising racial hatred on college campuses. The new racism is based on the belief that racial minorities don't deserve a place on campus or in the board room, that minorities occupy these spaces only to meet a quota. Racism is one of the most insidious problems in American society and one that threatens to set back civil rights achievements at least 50 years. Yet few institutions of higher learning seem willing to offer a course or any equivalent to ``Racism 101,'' not to mention ``401.'' The dialogue on racism that began the violent '60s and '70s was buried in the conservative message of the '80s. But dialogue is at the root of nonviolent change - changes in attitudes, behavior, and policies.

Today's college students were born on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. Yet racist ideas still prevail among this age group. Several white students interviewed in the ``Frontline'' program expressed a belief that blacks were born less intelligent than whites; that affirmative action has removed blacks from their status as second-class citizens; and that black students are to blame for their lower levels of achievement.

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The rise in campus racism is inextricably linked to our cultural history and to structural inequality in our public policies, particularly in education and housing. From its inception, the Reagan administration has sought to eliminate the Department of Education and has granted more responsibility but fewer government funds to state and local governments for education, housing, and other social services. Housing patterns are a key to predicting opportunity and achievement in education. It comes as no surprise that children who grow up in economically deprived neighborhoods are far less likely to receive a good education because of inadequate public funding. This is the main reason that black students (from urban areas as well as the rural South) enter college in disproportionately low numbers and are often less prepared to handle college-level work than are white students.

It's time to plot a new course. The textbook must include a policy analysis and data about the widening gap between rich and poor in America, which breeds racism through inequality of opportunity. Twenty years after Dr. King's death, we have made only a small dent in changing the social structure so that every citizen can look forward to a college education, to decent housing, and to making a contribution to society. Today's black college students are still trying to catch up. Racial prejudice and discrimination are only part of the problem. So long as institutional racism prevails, racial minorities will continue to fight for justice and equality. Blaming the victim will only add fuel to the fire.

Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley is director of public affairs at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in Boston.

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