Racism on Campus: Beyond the Citadel

updated 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/1986 01:00AM

The incident lasted no more than 90 seconds—just long enough for five students, draped in Klan-style white sheets and towels, to light a small paper cross, dash into the room where freshman Kevin Nesmith lay sleeping, utter a few epithets and toss the charred paper cross on the floor. Nesmith's roommate, Michael Mendoza, lunged for the light switch, but by the time he reached it the intruders were fleeing down the corridor of Stevens Barracks at The Citadel, the stately old mock-Moorish military college that sits nobly in Charleston, S.C.

Nesmith is black. The intruders were white. Traced from laundry marks on a towel they dropped, five juniors had confessed by late the next day. The Citadel at first denied that the attack had been racial, portraying it as simply a new twist on the hazing of freshmen—or "knobs," so-called because of their close-shaven heads. Two days later the president, Maj. Gen. James A. Grimsley Jr., admitted, "I would like to write this off as a prank that got out of hand, but the college has too much at stake to write it off."

Just how much became apparent in ensuing weeks, as controversy raged around the 144-year-old military school. The leaders of Charleston's sizable black community demanded that Nesmith's tormentors be expelled, and when Grimsley announced that they would instead serve an elaborate on-campus discipline (including 195 50-minute marching "tours," six months of campus confinement and loss of rank) local blacks called for his resignation. Nesmith left in disgust and began preparing a lawsuit. Other black cadets, who make up 6 percent of the student body, came forward to relate other instances of mental and physical abuse and to dispute Grimsley's claim that "this specific incident, while a serious aberration, is not a reflection of the racial climate in the corps." Last week, 38 days after the Nesmith episode, the FBI announced it was launching an investigation to determine whether there had been racial harassment at the college.

Sadly, according to a PEOPLE survey of colleges across the country, the trouble at The Citadel is not an isolated occurrence. Racial incidents on campus, while by no means universal, are on the rise. This fall alone:

•The University of Colorado recently posted a $1,500 reward for information about the spray painting of racist graffiti in the classroom of a black professor.

•An Ohio State student on one weekend counted 20 instances of campus graffiti, including "It's jungle bunny season. Get out your .22s."

•On the Albany campus of the State University of New York, freshman Alfreda Thompson found a sign posted on her dorm room door. "We don't want niggers on our floor," it said. "Leave tomorrow or die."

•At the University of Alabama, two students were expelled for burning a cross in front of a building that was to house a black sorority.

•The president of Smith College, concerned about unrest and graffiti, called a meeting to discuss racial tensions. Two thousand students and faculty members showed up.

•A University of Texas group called Aryan Collegiates declared it was responsible for burning down an anti-apartheid shanty and vowed to rid the campus of "outspoken minorities."

•Shortly after the Citadel affair, a beery post-World Series scuffle between Red Sox and Mets fans at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst turned into a mini-race riot when about 15 white students went on a rampage. "If you had a black face," said one witness, "it was open season." Student Yancey Robinson, a passerby, suffered cuts, bruises and internal injuries, and seven other black students were treated for injuries. Two days later the Mets' Mookie Wilson and the Sox's Marty Barrett spoke at the campus in an effort to cool the atmosphere.

The U. Mass. riot was probably the most alarming racial episode on any campus this year, and the University's vice-chancellor, Dennis Marsdon, readily admitted its gravity. "This incident shows that there is prejudice right under the surface," he said. The next weeks were tense, punctuated by threats and nasty graffiti in the Pioneer Valley area—which includes Smith, Mount Holyoke and Amherst colleges. As in Charleston, the attack at U. Mass. prompted some rare public soul-searching about race relations among young people who were in diapers at the height of the civil rights movement and whose knowledge of the upheavals of affirmative action comes mainly from civics books.

At the Smith meeting, blacks talked about the everyday realities that afflict minority students all around the country: the housing squabbles, the patronizing warnings from professors to avoid "demanding" majors, the verbal hassling, the graffiti. If the community around a college is predominantly white, black students are "open targets," says Tracie Gardner of Mount Holyoke. "I was once called 'nigger' three times within 15 minutes, walking to the bus in Northhampton." At bars near the University of Wisconsin, says junior Dorothy Nairne, "I've had to recite everything on my ID, while little blondes hop through the door."

At colleges in or near a black neighborhood, black students—particularly men—may spend their entire college career under suspicion from campus security. Sid Smith, a black at Yale, says he is regularly stopped and asked to show an ID. "I'm used to it," he says. "I expect it, but I don't accept it."

There are many reasons why black students feel alienated—they are "at the university but not of it," as a Texas student puts it. Numbers are a primary cause: Black enrollment nationwide, which rose 246 percent between 1967 and 1976, has gone up only 6 percent since 1980, less than other ethnic groups, and the black dropout rate is now twice that of others. On many campuses, blacks now number less than 2 percent of the population. In such circumstances, blacks often choose to stick together, provoking white resentment. "When blacks do a lot of things together, people say 'They're not getting the Yale experience,' " says Yale student Brett Taylor. Senior Adrienne Davis wonders how whites can be intimidated by "blacks neatly dressed walking in a line, when the Dekes are running around with girls' underwear on their heads."

Economics are partly to blame for the shrinking black presence on campus: Cutbacks in student aid and other social services have hit blacks hardest. Thompson also faults high schools for not adequately preparing minority students—and the colleges for not creating an environment in which they can feel at home. Smith has only four minority teachers on its 260-member faculty. The Citadel, with 155 faculty, has two black adjunct professors and one black librarian.

That is one of the things that has to change, says Alonzo Nesmith, 29, Kevin's brother, who graduated from The Citadel in 1979 and is the first black appointed to the school's Board of Visitors. In his opinion the most pressing need is for the school to renounce the plantation trappings that tell black cadets, "You haven't come as far as you think you have."

That view is shared by author Pat Conroy, a Citadel grad who brought his alma mater unwelcome publicity when he used it as a model for The Lords of Discipline, a novel and film in which a black cadet at a southern military academy is brutally tortured by white students. "It's just tacky when the band starts playing Dixie, and everybody waves confederate flags at football games," Conroy says, referring to a standard practice. That activity took on a special edge at the home game three weeks after the Nesmith incident, when brand-new rebel flags were waved defiantly by white students and alumni—and American flags by black cadets. "Don't these students know that's just like chanting 'nigger, nigger?' It hurts the black kids, but it also hurts the white kids." Flags or no flags, kids of both colors seem to be getting hurt on many other campuses, too.

—Written by Lee Aitken from reports by bureaus and campus stringers

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