In less than a week, two racially charged incidents that were witnessed by few but now have been discussed by thousands have prompted the president, faculty members and students at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa to publicly decry racism on campus.
On Friday, a member of a white fraternity shouted racial epithets from inside the group’s house at passing student Justin Zimmerman, who is black. The fraternity member, whose name has not been released, reportedly called Zimmerman a “nigger,” then called out, “come here, boy.”
Zimmerman alerted a faculty member, and the next day President Robert E. Witt sent a brief – and vague – e-mail to faculty, staff and students. In its entirety, the message reads, “On Friday evening, a member of the UA student body used a racial slur to refer to another UA student. The words that were used are offensive to our community, and are especially upsetting to African Americans. I want to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that The University of Alabama finds this behavior totally unacceptable, and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.”
On Wednesday people arrived on campus to find disparaging words about both blacks and whites written in chalk on many campus walkways. Mark Nelson, a university vice president, said in a statement that the graffiti, which was immediately washed away, included the words “First Amendment." He believes it was “an attempt to assert First Amendment rights.”
The chalker remains unknown, while Delta Tau Delta has suspended the fraternity member.
While the university’s Black Faculty and Staff Association issued a statement calling for “swift and exact disciplinary action against the accused perpetrator” who shouted the slur, others were not keen on the message that Witt delivered – or the lack of information in it. “It’s dangerous to give racist language too much power by treating it like Lord Voldemort, where it can’t be named,” said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “College students are adults and they have the right to know the information about what’s happening on their campus. Withholding that information is counterproductive.”
So too, said Shibley and others, is punishing one individual whose actions are indicative of a much larger issue. Nancy Hogan, president of Alabama’s Black Student Union, is a close friend of Zimmerman’s who has heard of similar incidents happening occasionally on her campus and on others. While the student has already been disciplined by his fraternity, he has been referred to the the university’s judicial affairs system – but Hogan doubts that will be enough. “If you make it so harshly punitive, you won’t get any type of progress out of it,” she said. “All you’re doing is reacting to the action and not the thought and reasoning behind it. And that’s where the issue lies.”
Although colleges can and do get rid of instructors and board members for using racial epithets, their options for handling students are more limited. On a public university campus, racial slurs are protected under the First Amendment until they reach the point of harassment, Shibley said. (Fraternities, which are private entities, are free to punish as they see fit.) To reach that point, the harasser would have to create an environment that interferes with the harassed student’s ability to get an education. “People have the right to be racist,” he said. “They’re now having a discussion about that, but it’s that discussion that’s actually going to forward the cause of harmony on campus. Not some sort of punishment of people with unpopular or racist views.”
A poll on the student newspaper’s website Thursday night showed that the issue is just about as divisive as can be: 417 readers said racial slurs should be protected by free speech, while three fewer than that said they shouldn’t. "This is America, people have the right to say whatever they want, no matter how stupid it is, but how about a little personal accountability?" one commenter wrote, while another said, "We don’t have the freedom to go around using racial slurs on a university campus."
The division is rooted in the past, said Charles S. Johnson III, board president of the Southern Regional Council, an anti-racism organization. “There is a history that’s unique to the South and to public higher education in the South that isn’t shared by higher education in other parts of the country,” he said, noting that the University of Georgia desegregated only 50 years ago, when it admitted two black students. “That kind of creates a context for a lot of what goes on today…. That kind of speech is a vestige of an earlier time.” Alabama, of course, has prominent civil rights history as well, such as George Wallace’s 1963 "schoolhouse door" speech.
Racial incidents on campuses do not surprise Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College and the author of Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. Tatum said via e-mail that although "our society has undeniably changed in positive ways and the barriers of institutional racism have been lowered in many respects, racism is still a part of the fabric of American culture. In the context of rising social anxiety about the perceived decline in economic opportunity, the changing place of the United States in the global economy, and even the paradigm-shifting election of a black president, we see a corresponding rise in incivility and more frequent public expressions of hostility toward the ‘other’ – whether that is defined by race, religion, ethnicity,or immigrant status."
Higher education is not immune to these trends, she said. "A college campus is a microcosm of the wider world. What we see on the news — i.e, Congressman John Lewis being spit upon and called racist names as he heads to the Capitol to vote on health care reform — we will also see on our campuses."
How should Alabama and other colleges respond to such incidents. Tatum argued for extended discussion. "The best response to ‘hate speech’ is more speech, specifically more intentional opportunities for dialogue that help students, both white and of color, talk about the continuing legacy of racism in our society, and understand the ways that their own behaviors either reinforce that legacy or interrupt it," she said. "Such dialogue is most effective when it is sustained over time (as in a multi-session workshop or semester-long course, for example) rather than a one-time experience such as a public forum or lecture on the topic. Such dialogue is often difficult to initiate because it is still true that many faculty, staff, and students have limited experience talking about race in racially-mixed settings and there is often fear about doing so, fear that one might say the wrong thing and offend, or worse yet, reveal hidden prejudices. Yet the only way to get past this fear is to have the conversation, learn from the inevitable mistakes, and come back the next day or the next week, and try it again…. Like when exercising creates sore muscles, the cure is to exercise more regularly, not to abandon the effort. "
Alabama enrolls more black students than most flagship institutions, with 3,379 self-identified black students comprising about 12 percent of the student body in fall 2009, said Jimmy Williams, special advisor to the provost on diversity issues. While Hogan said that there are pockets of racial divisions on campus – students who only converse with peers of the same race – Williams said it’s a much brighter picture than it was when he came to the university 23 years ago. “I have seen the interaction between different groups on students increase,” he said. “I do not see these types of incidents happening very frequently on campus.”
Williams and Hogan met on Tuesday to discuss the fraternity incident, and both said they were optimistic about where they’ll go from here; they and other student organizations plan to use cultural groups and other campus resources to prompt a discussion about racial issues that would include more than just the fraternity member.
Either way, Alabama – and other colleges dealing with these issues – still have work to do, Johnson said. “There’s a limit to what the law can do about it, and it really is a reflection of where we are in terms of the hearts and minds of the parents that raise these young people and the young people themselves,” he said. “It may not necessarily be reflective of the entire society in Alabama, but it certainly reflects the fact that Alabama has not totally escaped that past – even today.”
Schools: University of Alabama