Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

School colors: uneasy gray between black and white. Decades after James Meredith crossed the threshold of the University of Mississippi, institutionalized bigotry has supposedly been exorcized. But between systemic racism and mutual respect lies a shadowy region of residual prejudices and unreconciled cultural differences. In a two-part series, staff writer Robert Marquand examines the myths and reality of campus racism. [ zee page head is: RACISM ON CAMPUS: THE UNEASY GREY BETWEEN BLACK AND WHITE ]

THE charge of ``racism'' on American college campuses has been one of the biggest stories in higher education over the last 18 months, with every semester bringing another twist: a race-related fight, the takeover of a building, a black professor resigning in anger. Epithets - ``KKK,'' ``jigaboo'' - have been found printed or scrawled at some schools. The Justice Department cited 30 racial incidents on campus last year. ``Racism 101,'' a Public Broadcasting Service ``Frontline'' segment that aired May 10, began: ``There are disturbing signs [that blacks on campus] face the same racial tension that plagued their parents.'' ``A New Bigotry Ripples Across U.S. Campuses,'' proclaimed a Los Angeles Times cover story on May 8.

Yet as the story develops, more professors, collegians, and social observers are questioning how truly ``racist'' colleges - typically the most liberal and tolerant institutions in America - really are.

About these ads

In wide-ranging interviews and visits to more than a dozen schools, the Monitor found the issue of race on campus far more complicated and elusive than simply a resurgence of white-on-black bias - the popular view, born of journalism, that ``simplistically filters the story through a 1960s American civil rights framework,'' as sociologist David Riesman puts it.

The early charges of campus racism, for example, were based on single-incident stories - fights, slurs, racial graffiti - much of which was connected to alcohol, parties, sports, late hours; and several of which were later found (after the initial press blitz) to be dubious. Some national stories were sparked by one or two students, on campuses of more than 20,000.

What these ``incident'' stories leave out is a whole set of new circumstances on campus. The pressure to be competitive in a high-priced college can bring out a more subtle form of prejudice. Many students are lethargic about race, having missed earlier civil rights battles. At least as important is the cultural dynamic among blacks themselves - their effort to establish an identity on campus (should they be more ``black,'' or more mainstream?), and a new black political assertiveness brought forth partly by student activists, and partly by radical or ideological black faculty.

Blacks say whites still do not understand the very different experience and culture they come from. Many whites say blacks don't give them enough credit for the progress already made on race. The issue highlights how little blacks and whites really know of each other's worlds, many commentators say.

Further, the electric atmosphere created by charges of racism often blurs the tougher, structural issues of race on campus: how to retain black students, how to increase the number of minority faculty, how to provide a culture of support in fields such as engineering and chemistry that minorities typically stay away from.

Few officials or students believe race is not a problem.

``I can't imagine anyone saying there's no racism,'' one white student said. ``Just go read the walls of any bathroom here,'' said a black student at an East Coast school.

About these ads

Still, colleges may be misrepresented.

``Is there a problem in this country with the ease in which white people can make blacks invisible? Yes,'' says Robert Pollack, undergraduate dean of students at Columbia University in New York, who last spring dealt with protests and sit-ins following a brawl. ``Does that mean Columbia is a racist institution? No.''

One important untold story in the press, in fact, is how well the majority of blacks and whites get along on campus - which some observers say is a civil rights success story.

One gets a very different view of student life talking with average students than with student activists, many of whom plan to go into politics. It's now common for blacks and whites to room together, eat, joke, date, play sports, and form close friendships.

In contrast with press accounts, very few students report racial tension at their schools. ``Ninety-five percent of whites and blacks get along,'' says chancellor Joseph Duffey of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

``I don't feel any tension,'' says Julie Kuchich, a University of Maryland sophomore. ``One of my best friends here is black. She's from an inner-city neighborhood. She's really mature. If I have a problem, I go cry on her shoulder and say please help out - I don't even think about it.''

Roger Harvey, who went to the virtually all-black Boston English High School before becoming an economics major at tiny Fitchburg State in Massachusetts (less than 2 percent black), says that racism ``isn't a real problem. You're very aware you're black. But teachers don't mark you down or anything. I've got a really good, good relationship with a white guy. Whites and blacks can be prejudiced. It goes both ways.''

``The academic community is not especially racist - it's actually one of the best atmospheres for dialogue about race,'' says John Warfield, a black professor of education and Afro-American studies at the University at Texas.

``I don't think black kids in college today are having an organically racist experience,'' he says. ``A silly white boy on the radio making a racial slur [at the University of Michigan] is not quite the same thing as having to march to open up the institute, to get at gate-keeping ideologies. It pales with previous experience.''

``We tend to forget how far we've come,'' says Gerald Grant, a sociologist at Syracuse University, who in 1953 went to the only integrated high school in Syracuse, N.Y.: ``I can remember talking to a neighbor then and having him ask me, `Gerry, do those niggers really stink?'''

Yet other blacks say it's precisely because of progress in civil rights that minority students are today more sensitive to prejudice and exclusion, and less willing to tolerate it, no matter how ``minor'' it may seem.

Cheryl Jordan, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, says ignorance among whites of the new black middle class is frustrating: ``You come from a thinking black middle-class family in the suburbs and some hick from hicksville treats you like a welfare case. Maybe your father makes more than his; maybe you've got better grades....''

There is a perception among students, especially at schools such as the University of California at Berkeley - which admits 38 percent of its students on affirmative-action principles, and has a low black and Hispanic retention rate - that ``blacks and minorities get in through an easier route,'' as one white Berkeley sophomore put it.

High-achieving Asian-Americans view such quotas with alarm.

``What do you say to these kids with high test scores who get upset when they aren't accepted due to affirmative action?'' asks Berkeley professor Sheldon Rothblatt.

The tension around these issues contributes to a new ``subtle racism,'' says Esther Terry, a professor of Afro-American studies at UMass.

``I feel racism all around me,'' she adds. ``But it's hard to pin down. It's like AIDS. Ask most people if there's an AIDS problem, and they'll say they don't feel it. But people who have AIDS say otherwise.''

``I'm the only one [black] in my engineering class,'' says a University of Pennsylvania junior. ``And people treat me differently; it bothers me.''

Prof. Denise Carty-Bennia of Northeastern University, a black, says it isn't until blacks enter competitive professional schools that subtle racism becomes more overt: ``The 22-year-olds tell me, `I never had a problem with racism till law school.' I say: `Yes you did; you just never saw it.'''

Typically, subtle racism involves exclusion from mainstream academic and social networks, as well as coldness and condescension.

Yet distinctions also have to be made about ``subtle racism.'' A recent Washington Post article featured a sophomore Puerto Rican activist who said of racism: ``You can tell by somebody's body language when they don't want to talk to you.'' Such criteria are very subjective, many experts say.

The word ``racism'' itself has become loaded, says sociologist Riesman, and is often used irresponsibly. It becomes, along with ``bigotry,'' a ``civil rights buzzword'' - a tool for playing racial politics. Unlike ignorance, insensitivity, or even prejudice, its original meaning assumes racial superiority.

Many faculty who charge ``racism'' tie the concept to an ideology that views the primary workings of the world in racial terms - much as for a Marxist the world is based on economics. American society and whites are inherently racist, they maintain and teach.

``That's a lot to load on an 18-year-old,'' says Prof. Jean Elshtain of UMass.

Dr. Duffey thinks at least some of the new subtle racism may be due to ``whites hearing all year they are racists.'' Says ``Steve,'' a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from Brooklyn, N.Y.: ``I grew up with white, yellow, black. I mean half my buddies on the football team were black, and I come here and read every other day in the paper I'm a racist. It irritates me.''

The press is especially loose with the term. ``Racism'' offers excitement and clarity at the expense of truth or nuance: ``What does it mean to say we're `racist'?'' asks Dr. Rothblatt. ``It's the rhetoric of the street. It's inaccurate. But I guess you don't get headlines with a little bit of this and a little bit of that.''

Some stories lack context, or alternative questioning. A March New York Times front page story on the nuances of racism quotes a black professor who says students often come to him ``shaking'' from the subliminal pressures of racism. Not referred to are the psychological pressures of blacks who do not align themselves with black protest, but take a moderate position.

Three blacks came to dean Pollack in tears during the Columbia sit-ins last spring, saying they were being ostracized. Cheryl Jordan from Michigan says blacks from upper-class and under-class backgrounds - the leaders of racial protest - often put down middle-class blacks who socialize with whites. ``For middle-class blacks, college is about seeing a future, not about the moment,'' she says; ``that doesn't always go over well.''

``Steve'' at MIT says a black student who rushed his fraternity this year ``only stayed six months.

``His friends made him choose - it was us or them; so he went back to Chocolate City [the name blacks give their residence].''

The Columbia brawl, triggered by an exchange between a black and a white student at a local hangout last spring, led to a national Time magazine story on campus racism. The story came out too quickly, however, to include the university report on the incident, which relied on the signed statements of 22 eyewitnesses, and which differed substantially from the account given by the blacks and used by the news media in reporting the story.

In the Columbia account, the actual brawl was provoked by a group of five to seven blacks outside the hangout. The blacks, retaining attorney C.Vernon Mason, refused to cooperate in the Columbia investigation (a tactic Mr. Mason has used in the Howard Beach case, and the pending Tawana Brawley case), and their story of ``a white lynch mob'' has since been discredited.

Outside the student hangout one month later, a non-white student who knows both students involved told the Monitor that ``they don't represent this campus. They both hold extreme views, and when you put people like that together, there are going to be problems.''

Incidents at the University of Texas and Tufts University were found, after investigations by police, campus security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to be false.

Many whites, in fact, say black-on-white incidents go unreported. When a dozen black youths crashed a Theta Delta Chi fraternity party at Berkeley last fall, pulling knives, hurling epithets, and putting two whites in the hospital, the student paper didn't cover the story. ``There were 11 cop cars and two ambulances - and we were the ones worried about a lawsuit!'' says fraternity member Jon Orbik. ``Can you imagine the media if it had been the other way?''

The press, while reporting white racist sentiments such as fliers at Northern Illinois University with a swastika and the phrase ``Niggers get out'' on them, has generally left unreported the extensive evidence of black extremism, typified, for example, by the hold such figures as the Rev. Louis Farrakhan have on young black activists.

Conrad Tillard, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the National Black Student Unity Congress, had the Rev. Mr. Farrakhan speak to several hundred NBSU members from colleges across the country at Howard University last October. Afterward, Mr. Tillard told the Monitor, ``Minister Farrakhan is right. The plan is to keep the black male down. The white supremacist message is that we aren't going to help you. So we must now change things for ourselves. That's the economic message of the 1980s: Do for self. Civil rights have failed.''

``I worry about charismatic leaders,'' says Dr. Warfield. ``I can filter out Farrakhan's message; I don't know if these kids can.''

Black students groups can have considerable effect on black freshmen. At the University of Pennsylvania, a white student commented on a black freshman who roomed with him and two others: ``He was friendly right off the bat, for about five or six weeks. Then the BSL [Black Student League] got ahold of him. It changed the way he acted. He wasn't casual anymore, but always on guard, and easy to take offense.''

New strains of thinking in Afro-American studies have created suspicion or hostility among many blacks to the college curriculum, which they see as biased and ``Eurocentric.'' Prof. Molefi Asanti at Temple University argues for an ``Afrocentric'' view of the world.

Cornell scholar Martin Bernal's controversial new book, ``Black Athena,'' contends that the language, politics, and arts of classical Greece have their origins in Egypt, and that a centuries-long racist conspiracy in the West has hidden that fact.

Black students in the debate over Western culture at Stanford University demanded that professors seek out the non-European roots of the West. In Stanford's ``Black House,'' one student leader asked the Monitor: ``Where did Plato's theories come from? Where did Pythagoras get his ideas? Socrates didn't just make up his theories, he went to school in Africa. The systems and structure of Socratic dialogue owe their origins to the Egyptian mystery cults.''

Many scholars have problems with the validity of these claims; many more do not know they exist.

At the bottom of student demands, however, and buried amid protest placards, are more pragmatic concerns: the lack of black faculty and a high dropout rate among black students.

One junior at Columbia comments: ``Maybe it's because I have liberal friends, but I don't see racism here. I think the black students see a lot of problems in the larger society that they want to solve in their own world. They have these huge goals, and they deal with the frustration by finding something accessible. But I mean, I agree there should be more black faculty.''

Tomorrow: The problem of attracting - and keeping - minority professors and students, especially in nontraditional fields.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.