BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Recent flaps over racially offensive language at the University of Alabama fit a pattern that’s dogged the state’s flagship school since it was integrated: Missteps along the path to greater diversity and inclusion often make more of an impression than positive strides do.
Months after the university unveiled a plaza and clock tower named for its earliest black students, the campus was swamped within the last two weeks with unwelcome attention after a white student was disciplined for yelling racial slurs at a black student. Days after that incident, more racial slurs were written on a campus sidewalk in chalk.
The school’s president, Robert Witt, has drawn praise for instituting programs to increase diversity. But it’s student foibles that garner the national headlines, such as when a parade of white students in Confederate uniforms stopped in front of a black sorority house in 2009 and angered alumnae gathered for a party.
“Given the long history, stretching back to the days of slavery and running through the dark and difficult years of Jim Crow up through the integration of the university, racial insults are particularly poignant and powerful at the university,” said Al Brophy, a University of North Carolina law professor who previously taught at Alabama.
“While racial insults would be offensive in any school, North or South, at UA they take on more power and are more hurtful than at many other places,” Brophy said in an interview.
In 2004, Brophy helped push the Faculty Senate at Alabama to issue a formal apology to the descendants of slaves who were owned by faculty members or who worked on campus during the antebellum period. The action was met on campus both with praise and complaints that it was pointless for anyone to apologize for the sins of the 1800s.
Alabama’s student body has grown dramatically in recent years because of an aggressive recruitment campaign, and there are now more than 30,200 students on a campus that bustles with construction. But while the student body is more than 12 percent black, the proportion is still small when compared to the state’s population, which is 26 percent black.
Most galling to some is the fact that Alabama’s Greek-letter social organizations remain segregated almost entirely by race, not by rule but by preference. The situation is similar on other campuses across the Deep South and elsewhere, and also at churches, clubs and other organizations.
“Given this lack of diversity, it is not surprising that some students feel discrimination and racism is okay,” the student newspaper, The Crimson White, said in an editorial last week.
The most recent flare-up came in early February when a white student was accused of yelling a slur from his fraternity house at a black student. The school has refused to reveal the student’s punishment, but the national president of the fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, apologized personally to the black student.
Less than a week later, disparaging words were written about several ethnic and racial groups on three sidewalks near The Quad, a large campus green area. Administrators responded to each occurrence with campus-wide e-mails decrying intolerance, and an investigation continues into the written epithets.
In the 2009 incident, Rebel-garbed members of a fraternity holding its annual “Old South” parade paused in front of a gathering of alumnae celebrating their sorority’s founding. After dozens of the women complained in letters, the fraternity banned members nationwide from wearing Confederate dress for the yearly parties.
Located about 60 miles west of Birmingham on the banks of the meandering Black Warrior River, Alabama was all-white until 1963, when black students Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood enrolled despite then-Gov. George C. Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent integration.
Wallace made his stand outside Foster Auditorium, which recently underwent a major renovation that included the addition of a scenic plaza and a brick clock tower dedicated to Jones, Hood and Autherine Lucy, a black woman who enrolled in 1956 but was suspended after a mob gathered to protest her presence. She was later expelled. She returned to the university years later and earned a masters degree in elementary education in 1992.
Just 14 years after integration, students elected Cleo Thomas as the school’s first black student government association president when white sororities banded together to support his candidacy. His victory was met with a cross-burning on sorority row, though, and no other black student has won the office since.
Following the most recent flap over racial slurs, the president of the Black Faculty and Staff Association at Alabama, Joyce Stallworth, said the university needs to take strong disciplinary action against the offenders and pay increased attention to promoting diversity on campus.
“Unfortunately, this incident is not an isolated occurrence on this campus,” she said in a statement.