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Lacrecia Cade thought she could make a difference as vice president of the student government at American University (AU). But the Eagle, AU’s student newspaper, had other ideas. In a piece endorsing her incumbent opponent, the editors cited their “fear that [Cade] would concentrate her attention on specific segments of the AU population rather than focusing her energy on the student body as a whole.” Fine, except Cade is black, and she deemed the paper’s reasoning a racist jab.
When she protested, the paper duly printed her letterdirectly above a demeaning comic strip featuring three baboons.
The Eagle’s editors say the letter’s placement was an honest mistake, but their disclaimer has only sharpened racial tension on campus. Last Tuesday, the tension spilled into a protest outside the president’s officean unusual event on AU’s normally apathetic campus. The 40 students issued vague calls for “action,” as agitated students are wont to do, demanding “the installation of broad-based diversity programs.”
Unfortunately, AU students can hardly look to other District colleges as models of racial harmony. In the last year, American, Georgetown, and Trinity have all born witness to disturbing incidents that bared the troubled souls of their student bodies. Working and studying in a black-majority town does little, it seems, to hone the ability of administrators and students to handle racial flare-ups with skill and sensitivity.
D.C. campuses tend to look nothing like the town they call home. In a city that’s 70 percent black, only 5.8 percent of the students at AU are of African-American descent. Elite Georgetown and George Washington (GW) Universities fare about as badly.
To make matters worse, the neighborhoods that surround Georgetown, AU, and GW reflect the racial mix on campus. Students parachute into demographics that look strikingly similar to those of the New Jersey suburbs in which they were raised.
The emphasis the schools place on diverse images shines through every carefully sculpted PR delivery and we-are-the-world mission statement. Georgetown “seeks to provide an enriching learning environment that brings together students, faculty, and staff with a wide range of interests and backgrounds,” while AU’s strategic plan boasts a “commitment to the values and practice of diversity.”
Trinity College in Northeast, the most statistically diverse campus in the District, plastered a photo of a black and a white student embraced in racial harmony on the cover of the school’s most recent magazine.
But late last month, a group of Trinity College students calling themselves the “White Student Alliance” distributed a hate letter, rocking the all-female campus. The angry letter attacked administrators, faculty, and students by name for their beliefs, race, and sexual preference. It praised other administrators, including President Patricia McGuire, who immediately condemned the letter. Claiming to be “tired of all this diversity crap,” the authors demanded more white administrators on a campus where 79 percent of the faculty is white.
The bigoted letter called blacks lazy people who “intimidate other students with their drugs and knives.” It concluded with an intimidating warning that “we know who we are and we are watching.”
Although Trinity has achieved diversity in its student body, 40 percent of which is black, only 9 percent of faculty members are black. The school has no full-time administrator, let alone an office, to serve as an advocate for minority students. In the aftermath of the letter debacle, the college plans to create such a position next semester, according to Ann Pauley, assistant vice president of college relations.
“When I first visited Trinity, they talked about equality and the need for minorities and diversity,” says Delicia Lewis, a freshman and Dunbar High School graduate. “I was disappointed….I’m starting to hear this isn’t the first time something racist has come about,” Lewis says.
Once community leaders and the local media got hold of the letter, administrators scrambled like firefighters, hurrying to throw water on the racial blaze. Administrators destroyed all copies of the letter, set up two discussion forums for students, and arranged meetings and correspondence among interested parties.
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Trinity’s black students say all the talking and hand-holding won’t put a dent in campuswide racism. Freshman Belita Shumate says the discussions were a “bunch of BS” and failed to address the issue.
“I have noticed a lot of people losing their [interracial] friendships,” freshman Maria Murden says of the letter’s impact.
In a letter to the college, Trinity’s Black Student Alliance (BSA) outlined a list of 15 hard-core demands, insisting on investigations of the letter and “full/severe disciplinary action,” investigations into the firing of black administrators and faculty, required courses in multiculturalism, and a recorded log of all racial incidents that have occurred at the college.
No major university in the District has a mandatory program for incoming students in diversity or multiculturalism. But Trinity has gotten feuding students to talk to each othera plateau that AU is just starting to reach.
AU at least has the infrastructure in place to encourage campus dialogue on race. Over a decade ago, the university established the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) to bring the various racial groups together under one tent. However, AU administration hasn’t embraced the multicultural spirit in its hiring practices: A mere 5 percent of the full-time undergraduate faculty at the upper Northwest school is black. (Georgetown, with a 2.2-percent black representation on the full-time undergraduate faculty, and George Washington, with 1 percent, are even more pathetic.)
The Eagle masthead is comparably whitewashed. No one at the editorial endorsement meeting that rejected Cade’s candidacy was black. The paper includes five black writers on a staff of 70. None of the 20 editors is black. Independently run by students, the Eagle has a reputation among minority groups for sloppy coverage of their events and concerns.
At first, Cade shrugged off the Eagle’s endorsement of her opponent as politics at its crudest. But the paper’s placement of her letter next to stereotyped racist imagery made her think something more insidious was at work. She believes the paper helped ignite fears among many white students about minorities in government and contributed to her election loss.
Steve Lott, who edited the page that dissed Cade, says the decision had nothing to do with race. “Based on the staff’s experiences, they didn’t feel she could reach out to the other groups on campus as well as the other candidate,” says Lott.
Where Lott sees editorial discretion, Cade sees a double standard. “It’s always assumed that white student leaders could represent everybody,” Cade says.
AU President Benjamin Ladner condemned the positioning of the baboon cartoon as “morally reprehensible” and said excuses of carelessness were unacceptable. He has held two meetings with concerned students, but none with the Eagle’s editors.
“Nobody is trying to keep the black man down,” says Tom Carter, a senior well known for his conservative politics in student government and his Eagle letters to the editor. “[Cade] could have criticized the Eagle by saying she could represent all students fairly and equally. To play the race card like that is totally unnecessary.”
Other students see the problem rooted much deeper than the paper. At a university that lacks a black studies program but boasts a Jewish studies program, black students are also pushing for greater diversity in faculty and curriculum.
Georgetown tackled faculty homogeny last spring, when hundreds of students rallied behind a black professor. Marcia Darling, who taught African-American studies courses at the school for three years, was initially offered only a one-year renewal on her contract. Students used the slight to shine a spotlight on minority recruiting and tenure practices at their university. Former BSA president Jamal Watson says, “Certain white students believed the need for diversity didn’t exist, even criticizing the protests.”
By the time the semester ended, though, Darling was offered a tenure-track position with the university’s history department and women’s studies program. Watson believes that without the help of white students who united with minority students in the protests, their success would not have been achieved. The incident proves that college administrators may fail to follow through on diversity propaganda unless forced into compliance by the concerted will of both black and white students.
“Black students were talking about this issue for years, but no one listened,” Watson says. “Progressive white students were instrumental in effecting change.”
Georgetown is making progress on its diversity commitment, according to Executive Vice President William Cooper, who announced two weeks ago that the college has secured three black professors in tenure-track positions starting in the fall. Administrators at AU and Trinity are quick to point out that competing with prestigious schools like Georgetown and the Ivys for minority faculty is exceedingly difficult.
But black students have grown tired of hearing excuses from administrators. They want a racial mix of students and faculty members that mirrors the country’s, if not the District’s. And then they’d like to see tolerance and sensitivity compliment the statistics.
“I am black. You need to recognize that and treat me with respect,” Cade says, looking back on the election incident. “Don’t say you’re going to have diversity when you really don’t.” CP