WASHINGTON – When nooses were hung from trees in Jena, La., the fallout grabbed a nation’s attention and put the small town’s racial climate under a microscope.
When a noose was hung from a tree outside the Nyumburu Cultural Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, a campus-wide outcry ensued and hundreds voiced their concern.
These racially charged incidents have galvanized opinion in support of the “Jena 6” and against those who commit hate crimes, and colleges throughout Maryland are now coming face-to-face with their own policies on diversity and what is being done to fight racism.
“What we have seen in the past few years is a comfortableness with racism,” said Melinda Chateauvert, director of undergraduate studies in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland, College Park. “People will express attitudes others may take as racist, and they have not been challenged on those attitudes or comments.”
One thing colleges are trying more than ever is to promote diversity through classes, cultural centers and other programs.
Promoting diversity is often a necessary step, considering what a college’s incoming student body can be like.
A lot of students are exposed to diversity for the first time at college, said Art King, assistant vice president of student affairs for diversity at Towson University.
King, who also teaches a class on diversity, said some students simply don’t know how, for example, to cope with having a roommate with a different background.
“There is a lot of ignorance and stereotypes,” he said, adding that many students have trouble identifying with issues raised in diversity classes.
Studies, including one released in February from Research in Higher Education, have shown that students who experience a high amount of informal interaction in diverse settings also learn better.
In helping the University of Maryland Baltimore County address the issues of diversity and tolerance, Nancy Young wanted further proof.
“Just saying informal interaction promotes learning doesn’t say much,” said Young, UMBC assistant vice president for student affairs.
She did several case studies of her own, interviewing small, diverse groups of students to get a sense of what issues were at play to support the data.
The results, Young said, were “incredibly heartening.”
She discovered that many students, when regularly interacting with a diverse group of their peers, succeed in “finding similarities where they thought were differences,” she said. “Going back to a non-diverse world would be boring” for those students.
But more has to be done. While colleges certainly play an important part, King said, true change must also come from home life and individual communities.
“We cannot wait for students to come to our campuses to expect a new wave or a change,” he said. “College should not be the beginning of appreciating and celebrating differences.”
Some say students can still appreciate diversity despite a certain tolerance for racist attitudes. And when hate crimes do happen, they represent even deeper conflict.
Nooses were hung from a schoolyard tree in Jena several days into the 2006 school year. The town experienced a number of race-related incidents afterward, culminating in six black students — the “Jena 6” — facing criminal charges for assaulting a white student.
The Jena 6 became a rallying point, as civil rights leaders protested that the students were unfairly treated and their charges were too severe for the crimes alleged.
A noose was also found hanging Sept. 6 outside the Nyumburu Cultural Center at the University of Maryland.
There, student leaders and administrators reacted swiftly, organizing “speak-out” events to express their outrage — and to discuss more broadly the meaning of the incident.
“I would say it’s related to the climate in America,” said Stefanie Brown, the NAACP’s youth and college national director, who also attended one of the speak-out rallies. “Those who do those things believe they can do so without repercussions. We haven’t seen enough action by communities. The climate in the country has aided ignorance on the part of people who do such things.”
Even beyond college campuses, racial rifts can develop when different groups segregate themselves.
“We have to educate ourselves to learn the rules of the game we call life,” said Chantal Clea, chairwoman of the Baltimore City Youth Commission.
People like to live in ignorance, Clea said, and “people don’t take the power they have for themselves.”
With problems like these in society, merely promoting diversity may not be enough for colleges to improve race relations, Chateauvert said.
She frames the discussion in two parts: civility and diversity. If people aren’t talking about racism and are instead focusing solely on promoting diversity, it conveys the attitude that speaking out against racism is somehow “uncivil.”
Some things get lost when the focus is only on diversity, Chateauvert said. Attention is taken away from things like affirmative action, financial aid cutbacks and the emphasis on standardized testing, which she said “perpetuates the idea that people who get an artificial score on a test we know is culturally biased can go to a school like the University of Maryland.”
King, too, recognizes an inherent flaw in diversity promotion at college — sometimes the scope just isn’t broad enough.
“We can’t reach everybody,” he said. “You often wonder if you aren’t preaching to the choir.”
In addition to promoting diversity, Young said UMBC tries to convey “clear and visible messages” that the school expects civility from its students.
“Educated people come together and talk,” she said. “A positive message goes to all our students — the expectation is from everyone. Just becoming diverse is not enough.”