UM paper flap turns King's dream on its head

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 07, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

COLLEGE PARK -- On a grassy hill overlooking U.S. Route 1 is the old dormitory called Harford Hall, where Melvin Potillo used to tell us stories about freedom rides through the South to stir our souls.

I don't know if anybody here remembers freedom rides anymore, or finds them honorable if they do. The evidence is not encouraging. But a long time ago, when a generation thought Martin Luther King's dream was the articulation of the true American ideal, we'd listen to Melvin's stories of integrating the South and think we were listening to the future.

And now I get the feeling, on this University of Maryland campus, that a lot of today's students find such notions hopelessly naive and would tell us to get a life.

In the offices of the daily student newspaper, the Diamondback, they're taking criticism like incoming flak. Last Monday, 10,000 copies of the paper were swiped and replaced by fliers accusing the paper of a ''racist nature.'' By Wednesday afternoon, there was a rally against ''institutionalized racism,'' and on Thursday night there was a campus forum where the paper was called racist and insensitive.

The specific charges are perplexing: that the Diamondback overplayed the story of a black fraternity suspended after

brutally hazing its pledges; that the paper identified Frederick Douglass as ''Franklin'' Douglass, and listed W. E. B. DuBois' book ''Souls of Black Folk'' as ''Sales of The Black Folk.''

''Are we racist?'' asks a Diamondback editor named Raja Mishra. ''I think you could say we've been insensitive or distant in some cases. But, to me, the word racism implies intent. And I don't think anybody here is guilty of that.''

The specific charges, in fact, seem a mask for more insidious problems. The paper should be praised for its coverage of the fraternity hazing. If you think otherwise, check with the parents of any of those kids who were brutalized. As for the errors on Douglass or DuBois, they sound more like youthful sloppiness or stupidity than racism.

But, in the current climate, they set off nerve endings. Three days ago, a Diamondback copy editor named Michael Morrison held a telephone in his hand and answered a series of questions from one in a series of reporters -- this one, some high school journalist, but there have been calls from the New York Times and network television, as well -- asking about the current controversy.

Morrison wore a preppy sweater, pressed khaki pants, and bucks, that seems to count for something these days. Also, he is black, a fact which puts him in something of a predicament.

''I go to the Black Student Union,'' he said softly, ''and they tell me I'm not black, I'm brown. Why? Because of the way I dress and because I'm with the Diamondback. That's the political fashion today. It's a self-inflicted segregation.''

There are variations of this on college campuses everywhere: black students saying they want separate dorms, separate student unions, separate courses. While black students here criticize the lack of blacks on the Diamondback (six black writers out of 20; two black editors out of 19) a student publication called The Black Explosion reportedly has just one nonblack on a staff of 28. Who's calling whom distant and insensitive?

The notion of a colorblind culture, the kind articulated by King, the kind Melvin Potillo used to talk about late at night in our old college dorm when we were imagining a more enlightened country, seems like something out of another world.

Some of today's separatism is understandable. It's a desire to discover one's own ethnic identity, to seek the comfort of a common history before being swallowed by the overall culture.

And let's not be coy about it: Such separatism is not endemic only to blacks. The various fraternities and sororities, smug and insulated, have traditionally chosen up sides based on religion without anybody making an issue about it.

But something else was also supposed to be happening: a public posture that extolled the virtues of the melting pot, that understood that dividing people along any arbitrary lines was also to invite misunderstanding and suspiciousness and, ultimately, hostility.

In case nobody noticed, that's exactly what these Diamondback racism charges are all about. If there's insensitivity -- by whites or blacks -- it's a natural outgrowth of people reflexively turning away from each other by skin color instead of looking for common ground.

For white people of my generation, who embraced the destruction of racial barriers, it's confusing and disheartening to see today's willful divisions. For blacks of my generation -- well, I can't speak for them.

But some of them, like Melvin Potillo, must be asking themselves: For this, I risked my life? Was this the dream I had for my children?

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