Hate on Campus

It is the most beautiful and most sacred part of "the Grounds," as the University of Virginia calls its campus. In a white-columned gallery along the "Lawn" are arrayed 104 rooms reserved for the best and brightest students. On the night of Aug. 26, on a message board outside of one of those rooms, someone wrote two ugly epithets: N----R and I HATE JESUS. The incident was the sixth of its kind in one week at and around U.Va.'s Charlottesville campus. Black students also reported racial slurs shouted from passing cars and trucks and written on a birthday card attached to an apartment door.

Race is an ever present and still sometimes painful subject on many college campuses, but it has a deeper significance at U.Va. The university was founded two centuries ago by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and its stirring decree that "all men are created equal." But Jefferson owned slaves (and used them to build his university), and U.Va. has never quite escaped its conflicted legacy. A history of incidents created an atmosphere of racial unease, and has slowed U.Va.'s transformation from genteel white boy's school to pre-eminent public university.

Recognizing that U.Va. will be hobbled in attracting the strongest black students until it cleanly breaks with the past, the school's current administration has decided to take a strong stand against racism. After the incidents in August, the university president, John Casteen, denounced racist hooliganism from the steps of the Rotunda on the Lawn. The university handed out 60,000 black ribbons among its 20,000 students. There was even some talk of expanding the school's cherished (and also controversial) Honor Code to ban acts of racial intolerance as well as lying, cheating and stealing.

The reaction reveals some generational progress. Steeped in the civil-rights movement, some black alumni are agitating for more drastic steps: video cameras on the Lawn to spot transgressors, mandatory sensitivity training. Some old-school white alums grumble that the administration has indulged in politically correct overkill. But most of the students support the university's attempts at consciousness raising. To be sure, at U.Va., like many schools, there is persistent self-imposed racial segregation (just as there are separate cliques and fraternities for jocks or preppies). There is always the risk that the administration's strong hand will produce a backlash, that some drunken louts will create an incident just to be subversive. But since August, the campus has been calm.

U.Va. was one of the last state universities to fully integrate. Not until the 1970s were there measurable numbers of black students. Today, 1,594 of U.Va.'s 13,000 undergraduates are African-Americans (and an average 87 percent graduate). One of them is Phil Jackson, who lives in the room that was defaced with the racial epithet. A serious and accomplished young man majoring in marketing and management, he agreed that the incidents were "definitely a big deal in terms of societal impact," but he did not seem burning with outrage about the slur outside his door. Politely, he ended the conversation with a NEWSWEEK reporter, "I have to finish up some law-school applications."