Copyright The Washington Post
Saturday, September 17, 2005; B01
After class at the University of Virginia one night this week, sophomore Kyle Miller found a note attached to the windshield of his jeep. It wasn’t a ticket; it was something hateful, racist, written in red ink, in all caps.
Just a few weeks into the school year, U-Va. has had at least nine racist incidents — slurs shouted from cars, ugly words written on message boards, a racist threat scrawled on a bathroom wall. And students, parents and alumni are demanding change.
“It’s got to stop,” said Miller’s mother, Alice P. Miller, executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, who now tells her son to be careful and stick with friends if he’s out late.
Yesterday, U-Va. President John T. Casteen III summoned students to the Rotunda, the heart of the historic campus in Charlottesville, and in a rare speech from the portico, he invoked the name of Martin Luther King Jr. and urged students to demonstrate unity against racial intolerance.
The approximately 250 students who had gathered on the Lawn pinned black ribbons to their shirts. “A lot of people were wondering what the university’s stance was,” third-year student Janelle Todman of Pelham, N.Y., said afterward. “This showed they’re really acting. It’s not just empty rhetoric.”
The university has had a troubled racial history, and reaction to the recent incidents — all directed at black students — has been stark.
M. Rick Turner, dean of African American affairs, said the climate is the worst he has seen in his 18 years with the university. “I call it racial terrorism — it’s gone beyond racial incidents.
“We have some African American young ladies who are . . . afraid of going to class or going anywhere at their university, and somebody’s going to ride by, or a group of white men will call them” a racial slur.
A group of parents from the District, Northern Virginia and other areas will be in Charlottesville tomorrow to meet with Casteen.
Students rallied on the Lawn after the first incidents, wearing black T-shirts to show their solidarity. They hung signs on their doors: “I Will Not Tolerate Intolerance.” Professors dropped lesson plans to talk instead about race. Alumni offered a reward for information. Students pushed to change the honor code, with some saying acts of intolerance should be grounds for expulsion.
On the Lawn, where the first students at the university founded by Thomas Jefferson once studied, students erased their message boards — because one of the slurs had been written on such a board — and drew black ribbons.
“It’s an honor to live on the Lawn, a place of prestige,” said Jessica Fowler, a senior. The Lawn is also a place where, historically, only white males lived, so it symbolizes university tradition, good and bad, she said.
Administrators said they are committed to change. On Tuesday, Casteen named the first vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at U-Va., William B. Harvey, president of the Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity at the American Council on Education. The appointment was the result of a commission that has been working on such issues for more than a year.
Officials asked the FBI to investigate graffiti on a campus bridge. This week, investigators concluded that the writing was not racially motivated, but some students were skeptical. Someone painted over it almost immediately, in all black with white letters, “Reject Hatred.”
And yesterday morning, an e-mail went out to the university community, asking people to gather on the Lawn in the evening. Casteen had issued a statement condemning the first spate of attacks, but many students and parents said it was an important symbol for him to speak from the Rotunda.
“I’ve come to express solidarity, a sense of oneness, with those who have been abused,” Casteen said. “These acts threaten the core freedoms that make university life what it is.”
He called the perpetrators “cowards” and urged students to wear the ribbons all next week.
Joselyn Spence, a fourth-year student from Chesapeake, Va., said: “This is a show. This is politics. Casteen had to go up there and say something.”
Some students said privately that the incidents had been overblown, that they were probably the work of a drunk townie, not someone on campus, and that it was better to ignore it than to give the perpetrators attention.
Some pointed to other things that were written, anti-Christian and anti-gay, and said it wasn’t only a race issue.
Turner said that the incidents will make it harder to recruit black students to the school, even though it has one of the highest graduation rates in the country.
Alice Miller remembers that when she was in college in Boston in the mid-1970s, a carload of white men threw a glass bottle at her on the street. “This is now 2005,” she said, angry and sad at the same time.
Kyle Miller missed Casteen’s speech last night — he was taking an exam — but after saying the university needs to pay attention and come up with solutions, he said: “The fact that the president talked today shows one step forward. That’s at least one step forward.”