America's colleges and universities, once havens of tolerance, have become laboratories for social antagonism
The real truth about race relations on college campuses today is that they have never been better--and that they are, as Ohio State University student Sheron Smith puts it, "Terrible. Horrid. Stinky!" Got it? This is the best of times, the worst of times and, without doubt, the noisiest of times in America's long march toward equal opportunity in higher education. Almost everyone, it seems, is mad about something: racial slurs, affirmative action, separatism, multiculturalism or the tyranny of manners that is known as the PC ("politically correct") movement. The lofty notion of college campuses as havens of tolerance, free inquiry and reasoned discourse seems as archaic as panty raids. "I lament the loss of civility and accommodation," sighs Marjorie Garber, associate dean for affirmative action at Harvard. "It's not 'fascistic' or 'politically correct' to be aware of others' sensitivities. Think, with imagination, of others. Think of how what you're saying will be heard."
But good advice is rarely heeded, even at Harvard. In recent weeks the nation's oldest university has been transfixed by one of the more perverse and complex controversies of a contentious academic year--a brouhaha over symbolic speech in the form of a Confederate flag. It began when Brigit Kerrigan, a senior from Great Falls, Va., displayed the Stars and Bars from the window of her dormitory room. Kerrigan, insisting that the flag was merely a statement of regional pride, steadfastly resisted pressure from fellow students and university officials to take it down. The university, recognizing the legal and political pitfalls of cracking down on a student's First Amendment rights, declined to compel her. And this impasse led Jacinda Townsend, 19, a junior from Bowling Green, Ky., to hang a bedsheet spray-painted with a swastika from her dormitory window. "I wanted people to know what the Confederate flag really means," she said. "I don't see it so much as a part of free speech, but as a threat of violence."
The battle of the symbols continued until Townsend, succumbing to protests from Jewish students and criticism from the Harvard Black Students Association, finally removed the swastika bedsheet. Kerrigan's Confederate flag, on the other hand, remains defiantly in view, and it is worth considering her motives in touching off this opera-bouffe dispute. Kerrigan is a conservative activist, and she seems to want to give Harvard's liberal sensibilities a vigorous neocon tweak. "If they talk about 'diversity,' they're gonna get it," she told The Boston Globe. "If they talk about tolerance, they'd better be ready to have it."
You could make the case that the race-relations debate now buffeting many U.S. colleges and universities is like the flag war at Harvard--a shadow play, for the most part harmless, of larger social conflicts. But the analogy is probably wrong. There are real stakes, real losses and real victims as schools all over the country struggle to negotiate the kind of social accommodations that most Americans avoid. The catchword for all this-Kerrigan is exactly right--is "diversity," and like all bureaucratic euphemisms, it covers a multitude of sins (George Will's column, page 72). Diversity is achieved, in the bare statistical sense, by including minority students and teachers in the university community. But the ethos of diversity, which is tolerance and mutual respect, is much harder to come by-and there is ample evidence that the grand experiment in race relations may be failing. It is like a college mixer where no one mixes-and it is leading, in the view of Troy Duster, a Berkeley sociologist, to the "balkanization" of campus life.
Tension between the races is, of course, nothing new on campus. What is new, and surpassingly ugly, is the apparent rise in racial incidents of all sorts--name-calling, scapegoating, accusations and recriminations. There are no truly comprehensive statistics. But Adele Terrell, program director of the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence at the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus, says one in five black students reports some form of racial harassment and that racist episodes have been reported at more than 300 colleges and universities over the past five years. An incident at Ohio State last spring is a depressing example. A woman graduate student claimed she had been raped by a black student. She later recanted her story, but the case led to altercations between campus police and black students and a series of student confrontations along racial lines. "There is some very serious tension," an OSU official concedes. "It seems to be a national trend."
He may be right. The list of name schools that have been rocked by race-related controversies in recent years includes Yale, Brown, Penn State, Georgetown, the University of Texas, the University of Michigan and many others. At Yale, 10 black law students received anonymous "nigger" notes in their dormitory mailboxes after a reported rape last fall; not long afterward, eight black undergraduates got into a dispute at a local pizza parlor that further roiled the waters. A Georgetown University law student, Timothy Maguire, recently prompted an uproar over affirmative action with an article charging that the LSAT scores and grade-point averages of many black law-school students are significantly lower than whites'. (Maguire has apologized.) Racially offensive fraternity pranks have led to disciplinary action at the University of Texas and George Mason University in Virginia. An official at the University of Georgia, where fraternity rushes are still segregated by race, says flatly that the school is 20 years behind the times.
There's no disputing that big issues are in play here: affirmative action, free speech, the competition between liberty and justice. There is also no disputing, as many university administrators maintain, that the social and economic tensions of society at large will inevitably be played out on campus. Blacks (not to mention Hispanics and Asian-Americans) are becoming more assertive of their separate ethnic identities, of their right to protest even the most casual snub or slight, and of their need for firmer support from college authorities. Whites, wary of increasing competition for jobs and mindful of conservative attacks on liberal social policies, increasingly object to affirmative action and to the accusation that they are racists, too. Both sides--all sides--seem to harbor a sense of grievance and victimization. The great battles of the '60s and '70s are only history to the twentysomething generation, and blacks and other minorities are now questioning the very idea of integration. That does not mean the progress of the past two decades is actually in jeopardy. But the dream of racial amity-of blacks and whites learning and playing together-still seems sadly elusive.
SOURCE: AMERICAN COUNCIL ON EDUCATION