Blowing the cover off

Ivy League racism

By
Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Alumni who were at Brown in 1989 describe it as a “rocky year.” The spring semester saw racial slurs, hate crimes and the rumored presence of the Ku Klux Klan, followed by over 20 assaults and allegations of racial profiling in the fall.

In what Kevin Webb ’92 described as the “infamous incident,” a fight at a Delta Phi fraternity party in January 1989 set off one of the most racially-charged years in Brown’s history.

At the party, Marc Rudolph ’90, a black undergraduate student and Douglas Hann ’92, a white undergraduate student, got into a fight. In February, the University found Hann guilty of using a racial epithet and “showing flagrant disrespect for the well-being of others.” He was put on probation for a semester and ordered to attend a race relations workshop.

The incident was only the first of the racial flare-ups of 1989, which included a March protest in which 13 black students wore all white clothes to a play audition as an objection to what they called a lack of opportunities for Third World actors in Brown theater.

But it was not until April that the KKK announced its presence at Brown.

Posters advocating white supremacy appeared in West Andrews on April 29. The first poster was found in an Andrews second floor bathroom and read “keep white supremacy alive!!! Join the Brown chapter of the KKK today.”

Two days later, President Vartan Gregorian announced the University’s response. The measures included the promised prosecution of all perpetrators of racism in the University disciplinary system, the possible involvement of “extraordinary assistance” by the FBI and the establishment of a 24-hour hotline for students to call with information about campus crime.

The KKK poster culprits, however, were never caught.

Thomas Forsberg was the associate director of Residential Life and assistant dean of Students in 1989.

He said he recalls Gregorian standing in front of a crowd of faculty and students after the KKK incident, publicly announcing that racism was unacceptable and would not be tolerated at the University. Gregorian, he said, was one of the first University presidents of his time to take a public stance in addressing issues such as racism.

“That was a step that the University presidents did not take very often – to stand up in front of a crowd kind of impromptu and pledge the University administration’s strong response against those found responsible for that kind of conduct,” Forsberg said.

Webb said he noticed a stark contrast in the way white students and the way “students of color” reacted towards the incident.

For students of color, Webb said, the incident was “an outrage, it was upsetting and it sparked a lot of reactions.”

White students, on the other hand, were outraged, but also surprised overt racism still existed at Brown – a different kind of shock than the kind the students of color experienced, Webb said.

“There was outrage against the flyers from the white community but for the most part, people of color are never surprised to encounter racism,” he said. “Even at a place like Brown that espouses certain ideals, (racism) is part of going to school in a liberal environment.”

Webb said he never believed that the people who created the white supremacist posters were affiliated with the KKK.

“I thought it was a kind of prank … some students who did this for fun,” he said.

When the University resumed classes in September 1989, the administration picked up where it had left off in responding to racism on campus. So did Brown’s resident racists.

The orientation for Residential and Minority Peer Counselors was expanded four days to six-and-a-half days with an emphasis on discrimination and harassment. The expanded orientation taught RCs and MPCs how to deal with harassment cases – who to call in the administration, when to call the police and when to call psychological services.

Gregorian rewrote the definition of harassment in the Student Handbook to specifically state that racial harassment of any kind would not be tolerated.

But despite the administration’s efforts, racial incidents on and around Brown’s campus continued throughout the semester.

Problems began as soon as students started to arrive on campus. Students reported having racial slurs shouted at them and their parents while unpacking their cars during Orientation Week. Both white and minority students reported having received physical and verbal abuse during the first two weeks of the semester.

In the first two months of the fall semester, 17 violent attacks occurred on or near the Brown campus. Although few were proven to be racially motivated, the attacks added to the continued tension on campus.

Webb said all African-American males on campus were advised by the Brown Police to carry their IDs with them at all times.

“We certainly took it offensively,” he said. “We had to justify our presence on campus in a way no one else did.”

But Forsberg said the Brown administration at the time did not promote nor did it tolerate any form of racial profiling.

Webb, however, was detained in November by Providence Police after an officer put pressure on a Brown student to implicate him as the black male who had threatened to rob him. Webb was walking with two of his female friends back to his dorm when police were looking for a tall 220-lb. black man wearing a black coat – Webb was 180 lb. and wearing a short blue jean jacket at the time.

Webb said he was detained and the cop took him to meet the Brown student and ask him whether Webb was the suspect they were looking for. According to Webb, the cop put pressure on the Brown student who ended up being cajoled into saying, “I guess so, yeah. That’s him.”

After a few minutes, the police determined Webb was not the suspect and let him go.

“I learned that whether it’s a flyer, or whether you appear to remind someone of a suspect, unless you can prove that you have some credentials that validate you things can turn ugly,” said Webb, who is now a retail consultant.

As the new school year wore on the campus began to return to normal, but both the administration and students continued to take measures to ensure that a year like 1989 would not happen again.

Harambee House, a program house for students interested in African-American culture founded in 1993, was one such step.

“Harambee House carried a certain symbolism. It’s like a black family moving into a white neighborhood and people having to deal with your presence there,” Webb said. “The bastion of white male-dom was being integrated.”

Brown has come a long way in addressing race relations on campus since 1989. Ari Gerstman ’05 said although race relations on campus today are “pretty calm,” racism is an issue that will never completely disappear.

“To assume that racism is not at Brown is absurd,” he said. “But for the most part, people at Brown are accepting and even if they do feel racist impulses, they don’t act on them.”

But he said the University needs to understand that “the status quo is never good enough.”

“Improving race relations on campus is something that Brown has taken pride in,” Gerstman said. “It needs to continue moving forward with that.”