Students Take Peaceful Path To Resolve Race Tensions
It had all the trappings of a nasty racial incident.
While walking through a parking lot last week at the University of North Texas, Eric Roman found a notebook belonging to a pledge at the Kappa Alpha fraternity. As he thumbed through the pages, Mr. Roman, president of the student body here and an African-American, found the notebook was laced with racial epithets by frat members. At one point, the pledge had asked members to list their dislikes, and they used slurs against blacks, Hispanics, and women.
Roman could have organized an angry protest against the traditionally white, Southern fraternity, which proclaims Robert E. Lee as its spiritual founder. Instead he took the notebook to campus officials. After a meeting, the university issued an open letter of condemnation, and the Kappa Alphas agreed to attend a four-hour diversity workshop.
At a time when American race relations are still strained, the story of the incendiary notebook reflects a little-noticed phenomenon: Racial incidents on college campuses are often solved peacefully, even constructively.
"This kind of incident is the norm," Roman says. "The flip side is the way we handled it. It's the reaction that's important. We tried to turn it into something productive."
It's a story that has been repeated recently all over the South. At the University of Mississippi, the site of one of the nation's most virulent campus integration battles in the 1960s, students and administrators have quieted a long dispute over a school tradition in which fans wave Confederate flags at football games.
Although the practice continues, a multiracial coalition of students has persuaded the university to set aside campus land for a civil rights memorial, and white fraternity members have volunteered to help promote the project and ask for donations.
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where African-Americans have long demanded a separate student union, students and administrators have struck a bargain: The school has earmarked a parcel of land for the project, and the building's advocates have agreed to raise the money to construct it.
Although there are still racial incidents that turn ugly, many observers say there's been a change in the way opposing groups behave in these situations. These days, campus officials usually respond swiftly to racial problems, and students tend to find new ways of voicing grievances. Storming administration buildings or staging angry protests are increasingly pass.
"There's been a pulling back from the type of awful confrontation we saw on campuses in the 1960s," says Joel Williamson, a humanities professor at the University of North Carolina. "There's a climate of talking and negotiation now, of trying to resolve these things in a way that won't create tremendous disruptions. Nobody wants another war."
According to Professor Williamson, this change dates back to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. All parties, he says, realized that the violence following the acquittal of four police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King was more divisive than the verdict itself. Beyond that, he says, the disparate reactions of blacks and whites to the O.J. Simpson murder-trial verdict exposed a "chasm" between each group's perceptions of justice. These realizations brought on a change in the mechanics of managing racial conflict.
On campuses, which have long been engines of social protest, the story is much the same. Despite numerous reasons for heightened racial tension this year, like the enactment of controversial welfare and immigration bills and adoption of a California ballot initiative banning state affirmative action, campus unrest has been minimal - even when there's an incident to spark it.
Here at North Texas, there is still plenty of anger over the notebook case. According to Alex Arellano, president of a newly founded Hispanic fraternity, tension has built to the point where few unacquainted blacks and whites make eye contact on campus. He says the incident has brought racism out into the open, but believes more should be done to address it.
"I can't say that the peaceful approach is always the best," he says. "Sometimes you have to take different measures."
Yet those who advocate a stronger response to the incident seem to be in the minority. In general, student leaders praise the steps university officials have taken to handle such emergencies. In recent years the school has instituted strong equal-opportunity guidelines, opened a Center for Cultural Diversity that offers seminars on multicultural understanding, and hired professional mediators to help resolve disputes among students.
University spokeswoman Debra Lillyard says there's a lot of cooperation among student groups, in part because more than 80 percent of students here work to pay their expenses. "Our students have challenges just getting through college," she says, "so more students understand the need to support one another."
Although Roman agrees that the university deserves some credit, he insists that college students today are better prepared to deal with racial strife. "I think everybody's more accepting," he says, noting that the Kappa Alpha president is a personal friend. "You see more people of different backgrounds dating, for example, and students are more aware of history now and the contributions of people of color."