Students rally to root out race hate

September 14, 2001

When the new semester began at Pennsylvania State University last month, just 4 per cent of its students were African-Americans. For some, even that is too many.

The past academic year has been marred by a series of racist incidents that prompted a ten-day student sit-in and drew promises of a new approach by the university administration.

This weekend students will stage an event that they hope will bring nationwide attention to intolerance on college campuses throughout the United States.

Penn State's Black Caucus and a multiracial student activist group called The Village are co-sponsoring a national rally that they expect will draw 10,000 students from across the country to denounce racism and hatred.

Racism, sexism, affirmative action, homophobia, workers' rights and the lack of culturally diverse university faculties are on the agenda for a line-up of guest speakers that includes the Reverend Jesse Jackson and activist poet Sonia Sanchez.

David Davis, chair of the three-day event, said: "The purpose is to send a message to the nation and the Penn State community that everything that happened last year has not been expunged with time."

In October 2000, former PSU Black Caucus president LaKeisha Wolf said she had received racist hate mail after publishing an article in the college newspaper challenging the portrayal of some African-American students.

Ten days later, two other students and an African-American university trustee said that they had received hate mail. By April, dozens of African-American students, and even some of their parents, had reported receiving racist and threatening emails and letters.

Death threats were allegedly made against African-American students, including Ms Wolf and seven members of the football team, and at least two regional murders of African-Americans went unsolved.

In April, students staged a "No Hate at Penn State" sit-in to jolt the administration out of what they saw as complacency at the lack of safety and security for African-American students.

Recalling a history of unfulfilled promises made by the administration in the 1980s, students attacked inadequate faculty hiring and funding for the African-African American studies department.

In response, university president Graham Spanier promised to add more faculty for the department - from four to ten by 2003 - and guaranteed a new research centre to promote a broader understanding of race in American society.

The office of undergraduate education has introduced a videotape presentation for freshmen designed to acquaint the students with issues related to racism and diversity.

But some faculty members doubt that the event can eradicate the problems of institutional racism.

Terrell Jones, vice-provost for educational equity, said: "We're talking about some kind of systemic problem, and a change can't happen with a rally.

"Most of our students who are white come from an environment that is white, and most of our students who are black come from an environment that is black.

"These young people have never before had the opportunity to talk to each other. And then we bring them to college and we wonder what's wrong."

Black Caucus president Hasan Amenra said he hoped that the students who attended the rally left Penn State prepared to bring about change on their campuses and in their communities.

"Unfortunately, when people talk about race and intolerance, they lower their voices. But I'm a freedom fighter for life. It's in my blood. And I know that it's time for all these acts of injustice to end," he said.

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