Racial protest at Hopkins

Actions of fraternity, university practices decried

November 01, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,sun reporter

Their list of grievances is long and varied:

Insinuations that school admission policy unfairly favors black students. Racial epithets glimpsed on campus. Faculty members they feel are racially insensitive.

For many members of the Black Students Union at the Johns Hopkins University, there is an overall feeling of discomfort, that this home of theirs for four years does not fully accept them.

Such feelings came to the surface this week amid reaction to a Sigma Chi "Halloween in the Hood" party that included a skeleton pirate dangling from a rope noose - a symbol, most students agreed, of a lynching.

The incident has served to reveal fissures and ignite a larger debate on race relations on campus, while also fueling a student movement with high ambitions.

"We just want the administration to act like they are truly, truly committed to diversity," BSU President Christina Chapman said yesterday.

Chapman, a senior, said the group met last night to discuss demands and organize demonstrations, and that members have been in contact with the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"We're going to protest in front of the administration building ... until we get what we want," she said.

The group's demands, she said, will include mandatory diversity training for faculty members, a cultural center, more faculty of color, a department of African-American studies and a freshman seminar on diversity.

University officials have suspended Sigma Chi from all activities pending an investigation into the party and a purported racially insensitive invitation posted by a fraternity member. The author of the invitation was expelled from the fraternity yesterday, according to a statement from the organization's international headquarters.

On Monday night, top Hopkins administrators held an open forum where more than 100 students aired their concerns on Sigma Chi's activities and other issues.

Now the officials are coordinating meetings with the fraternity and the BSU.

"What this has revealed is a lot of pain among our African-American students about life at Johns Hopkins and, frankly, life in our broader society," said Adam Falk, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, who attended the forum.

The invitation to the Saturday night party, posted on the Web site Facebook, described Baltimore as "the HIV pit" and encouraged attendees to wear "regional clothing from our locale" such as "bling bling ice ice, grills, and hoochie hoops (oversize ear-rings)."

Across the country, similar racially charged parties have surfaced on college campuses, said Heidi Beirich, a spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

"Unfortunately, the campus environment does not exempt us from racial insensitivity," Beirich said.

Events - some of which were canceled after negative reaction - have included a fraternity "gangsta"-themed gathering at the University of Colorado last month, a "Think Ghetto" party at Texas A&M University several years ago and a 2002 Halloween fraternity party at Auburn University where a student dressed as a Klansman and others came in black-face makeup.

Such episodes have helped fuel student movements that have at times been effective at spurring change, said Summer Henry, executive director of the National Council for Black Studies Inc., based in Atlanta.

Georgia State University created an African-American studies department in 1994 - two years after a student protest movement formed in response to an incident in which members of a white fraternity wrote a racial slur on a trash can in front of a black fraternity, Henry said.

At Hopkins, student activism has long been overshadowed by academic intensity.

In 1992, the Black Students Union launched a yearlong series of protests - including a sit-in at the library and confrontations with university officials - to improve the racial atmosphere.

At the time, students complained of campus police officers following black students and a lack of black faculty members.

Then, 4.5 percent of undergraduate students were black and the faculty included just two blacks, according to a 1993 newspaper article.

Thirteen years later, the university's student population is 5.3 percent black and there are six tenured black faculty members and two on the tenure track.

"We do not have a good historical record for appointing and retaining faculty of color," said Falk. "One of my highest priorities is to change that. We have a lot more work to do, and we're committed to doing that work."

University officials point to a number of programs already in place, including a Diversity Leadership Council formed in 1997. The council recently conducted a survey of all faculty and staff, and plans one for students, said Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for the university.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.