Hopkins battles deja vu on race

Protesters complain conditions haven't changed over years

November 05, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

The numbers were reason enough to protest 14 years ago.

Then, the Johns Hopkins University had a black student population that made up 4.5 percent of its undergraduate body. And the 330-member undergraduate faculty included just two blacks, according to newspaper articles.

Members of the Black Student Union protested this, among other things, confronting university officials, holding a sit-in at the library and engaging in heated confrontations with other students when a controversial speaker came to campus.

Years later, the numbers aren't much improved.

The university's student population is 5.3 percent black and there are six tenured black faculty members, two on the tenure track and three others, out of a total of 413.

Such numbers have been thrust to the forefront after a racially offensive fraternity party invitation and gag that have provoked student outrage and inspired the Black Students Union to protest and demand more faculty of color and an African-American studies department, among other things.

"The fact that students are still having to protest to get these things on campus is a testament to how little progress has been made," said Frank Matthews, publisher of Diverse Issues in Higher Education, a magazine that comes out every other week. "Unfortunately, it takes these kinds of circumstances to make the schools responsive."

University officials have responded swiftly. Last Monday, they held an open forum and suspended the fraternity pending a full investigation. On Thursday, they announced a series of steps to improve the climate for students, including diversity training and incorporating the history of racism more into the curriculum.

And they said they will hold another forum.

"I commit to you that attention to those issues will not fade when that forum has passed or when this unfortunate episode recedes from the front pages," University President William R. Brody wrote in a letter.

"We will not finish the job in a year or even a decade," he added. "It must have our constant attention, and it will."

But some remain skeptical.

"These things have been asked for as far back as the '60s," said BSU President Christina Chapman, a senior. "We don't feel like progress has been made quickly enough. We just want to feel that sense of urgency. I want to see it, and I want to feel it. I want to feel like people are truly making diversity a priority."

Perched on a hill in North Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus is a beacon of wealth and prestige, attracting some of the finest students and faculty in the world.

Johns Hopkins, the founder of the university and the hospital also bearing his name, was a wealthy Quaker philanthropist who died in 1873. Hopkins opposed slavery and showed concern for the plight of poor blacks who settled in Baltimore after the Civil War. Hopkins Hospital treated blacks and whites during the days when Baltimore was segregated.

Like many other institutions of higher learning across the country, Hopkins has periodically had to struggle with race relations and its sometimes antagonistic relationship with the city of Baltimore.

Both relationships were in the limelight last week after a dispute fueled by a Sigma Chi fraternity party Oct. 28 that was advertised as "Halloween in the Hood."

The invitation, posted on the Facebook Web site, 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."

The party included a skeleton pirate dangling from a rope noose, which Black Student Union members said was symbolic of a lynching.

The author of the invitation, Justin H. Park, a junior, was expelled from the fraternity. On Friday, he issued an apology on Facebook, saying the invitation was "satirical" and was not meant to offend anyone.

But the incident has sparked a debate beyond the party, exposing deep fissures within the Hopkins community and leading the BSU to protest what it views as a larger issue of racism on campus. They are demanding a number of actions -- including more tenured black faculty members and a department of Africana studies that grants doctorates.

Like campuses across the country, Hopkins has been the site of sporadic bursts of protests.

Over the years, targets of protests have included a film club showing of Coonskin, a 1975 animated film with stereotypical characters and the university's investment in companies that did business with the apartheid government of South Africa. To dramatize the substandard living conditions in black townships in South Africa, protesters built a shantytown in the lower quad, but it was burned down by members of a fraternity.

Erich W. March, Class of 1974, attended an NAACP rally in support of the BSU on Friday, expressing dismay that some of the same issues that affected campus life when he was there persist. "We dealt with these problems back in the early 1970s," said March. "Same problems, different campus."

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