At a time when most Americans are putting domestic differences aside to unite in the international war against terrorism, racially charged events at two southern universities have reminded the nation that the battle against ignorance and intolerance at home must still be addressed with a sense of urgency.
Aftershocks at Auburn University in Alabama and the University of Mississippi are still being felt weeks after fraternity members at Halloween parties found a way to disrespect and offend millions of people.
In now infamous photos that circulated on the Internet, members of Delta Sigma Phi fraternity were shown wearing Ku Klux Klan robes and one member was photographed in a Klan costume, clutching a rifle and a noose in front of a Confederate fag. He was pretending to hang a member in blackface. At another Auburn frat house, Beta Theta Phi members at a Halloween party blackened their faces and wore clothing with the symbol and colors of historically Black fraternity Omega Psi Phi. Members also wore bulky jewelry and outfits that mimicked the FUBU apparel company. Some members held up gang signs. Pictures from the parties were posted on the Internet by a company that photographs social events.
Shortly after the Auburn photos surfaced, a photograph depicting two costumed Alpha Tau Omega members at a University of Mississippi Halloween party hit the Internet. One student wore blackface and a straw hat and was photographed picking cotton on his hands and knees while another student dressed as a police officer held a gun to his head.
"I was angry and saddened when I saw that garbage on the Internet," says Gerard Seabrooks, a member of Omega Psi Phi and graduate of the University of Maryland. "In 2001 we have students performing mock lynchings? Wearing Klan robes? That's madness. I received more than 30 e-mails about it from all over the country. People were in shock."
But Dr. Jack Levin, an expert on race relations and director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston, says the behavior comes as no surprise to him.
"Some fraternities have been home to some of the most grotesque and stereotypical acts going back for many decades," says Levin, who co-authored the 1993 book Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Hatred.
Levin said that during the 1980s, when more students of color arrived at universities around the country, "we saw these kind of incidents increase.
"It's a defensive position from the point of view of these students, who are what used to be the prototypical college student: White, male and Protestant," Levin says. "But now they have to share with people who are different -- Black, Latino, and Asian students -- and they don't like losing their advantage and privilege."
The Internet postings exacerbated the problem, Levin says. Within hours, the photos were being forwarded and discussed via e-mail and in chat rooms nationwide. Levin says little thought must have gone into the fact that Internet posting would present the photos to a global audience.
"There's still an illusion of anonymity with the Internet," he says. "People are far more open in chat rooms than they are in living rooms."
OUTRAGE, THEN ACTION
At Auburn a flurry of activity followed the revelation about the fraternities' behavior as counselors, administrators, and faculty and staff moved quickly to quell racial tensions and educate students on the value of diversity.
Among the moves taken:
* More than 200 students, administrators and faculty at Auburn attended "Education and Tolerance at Home," a three-hour seminar that was part presentation, part conversation.
* At the request of Auburn interim president William Walker, the Southern Poverty Law Center conducted diversity workshops at Auburn, which were attended by dozens of students. …