Campus Racism Online
Tech gives a new look at a persistent problem
One Saturday night this fall, two college students went to a party. At 9:22 p.m. somebody took a picture. Eventually, everyone got tired and went to bed.
That would have been thatan ordinary Whitman College frat party in ordinary Walla Walla, Wash.had Natalie Knott, a Whitman senior who wasn't invited to the party, not discovered the 9:22 p.m. photo two weeks later on the social networking website Facebook.com. In the photo, two Sigma Chi frat brothers, both white, are smiling ear to ear. They're also covered in thick black paint, evoking a minstrel show.
"Having a decent knowledge of history, I sort of lost it," says Knott, one of only a small number of students of color at Whitman. She was not the last to be outraged. Over the course of the semester, racially charged photos, videos, and Facebook pages offended students at more than a dozen campuses across the countryfrom the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles, where a video of police shocking an Iranian-American student with a TASER gun sparked a rally against police brutality, to Tufts University outside Boston, where the editor of a student journal just apologized for a satirical poem called "O Come All Ye Black Folk." One widely forwarded Texas A&M video shows a white student painted with shoe polish getting whipped and sexually assaulted. The NAACP found the trend so disturbing that it announced a Campaign to End Campus Racism. Over the past 15 years, colleges have become more racially diverse, but students and observers say campuses remain segregatedand, for minority students, racially tense. Survey data tend to miss that tension. "People know how to say all the right things [in a survey]," explains Rachel Sullivan, a sociologist at Long Island University.
All seeing. What's made it more visible is new technology, from Internet sites to cellphone cameras. "I can go on the Internet," says L'Heureux Lewis, who studies campus race relations at the University of Michigan, "and within a few clicks I can find out who you know, where you hang out, and what you do on a Saturday night. I have 24-hour access to your offenses now. So if I didn't hear about what you did last night, or I wasn't there two months ago when this happened, there is a chance that I may see it now."
Exposure has had mixed results. Knott says she and her black peers had long endured discrimination at Whitman; one friend even dropped out because of it. But the Facebook photos provoked Knott and her friends to join faculty members for a daylong symposium on race relations. The two students in the photoswho said they had not realized their costumes were offensiveled a seminar called, "On Being White in a Racist Society." "We talked about how ... even though we may not intend ... anything derogatory, it may hurt somebody," says Brice Crayne, one of the students.
Other debates have been less productive. Johns Hopkins University students who organized two rallies in response to a racially themed Halloween party suffered a bitter backlash, confirming their fear that speaking out would only make their alienation worse. Even "teachable moments" don't tend to last long enough to make an appreciable difference. Real change, activists say, can only come on an institutional level: more minority professors, more minority students, and better resources to support them. "When you feel like people are poking fun at your culture," says Christina Chapman, president of Hopkins's Black Student Union, "and then when you have to turn around and walk into your lab section, and you're the only student of coloryou have [nonblack] professors or TA's who are grading youit's very easy to feel isolated."
For now, the protest seems only to have made the Black Student Union more isolated. But the NAACP's Baltimore branch recently sent Johns Hopkins officials a list of 27 recommendations, ranging from diversity training to a new African-American studies curriculum to an increase in the number of African-American faculty members. The school has not yet responded, but a spokesman said plans to hire more minority faculty and enroll more minority students (only 5.7 percent of the undergraduate population is black) are already in the works. "We, like most institutions in society, have work to do," says Dennis O'Shea, the university spokesman. "We're still working on it."
This story appears in the January 8, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.