The adults in the church sanctuary were itching for a fight, eager to redress years of indignities absorbed growing up black in San Diego.
The black UC San Diego students were nursing a different sort of wrath: the psychic pain of hardworking high achievers, envisioning post-racial acceptance but reduced to crude racial stereotypes instead.
FOR THE RECORD:
UC San Diego turmoil: Sandy Banks’ column in Saturday’s Section A about anger over racial incidents at UC San Diego stated that President Obama’s father was Nigerian. The president’s father was from Kenya. —
The generations met at a San Diego community forum that drew more than 600 people who were upset over a string of racial incidents spawned by a party promoted by white fraternity members from UC San Diego, “in honor of” Black History Month, that promised a taste of “life in the ghetto” -- cheap clothes, watermelon, malt liquor, gold teeth.
When I first heard about the “Compton Cookout,” I was more disappointed than angry. I wished somebody would round up those frat boys, drop them off in Compton and let those “thugs” and “ghetto chicks” they mocked have at them.
I cringed when black students responded with demands and black politicians with press conferences.
Can we not play the “victim” card? I thought. Let’s denounce the ignorance and move on.
But the church forum and a visit to campus this week taught me that I was wrong.
Like so many things involving race, the incident was not the issue; the party was just the spark. The problems it unmasked and the venom it unleashed -- waves of anger and backlash -- are far more troubling and dangerous.
A few days after news of the party broke, a student-run television program used racial slurs to mock black students. A noose was found dangling from a library bookcase. A pillowcase fashioned into a KKK-style hood was slipped over the head of a campus statue.
On campus, there were anti-racism rallies and counterdemonstrations defending “free speech.” There have been heated classroom discussions, angry conversations and awkward silences.
The atmosphere is so “toxic” that David Ritcherson stopped going to his classes last week. “It’s hard to sit in class thinking one of those people at the party might be sitting next to you,” he told the crowd at the church forum.
Ritcherson, head of the campus Black Student Union, is a product of tiny Community Harvest, a charter school in South Los Angeles. His 300 schoolmates were mostly black, compared with less than 2% of UC San Diego’s student body.
That makes for a sad and isolating ratio and leaves minority students feeling vulnerable.
“You wonder what people are thinking of you,” said Jennifer, a Latina who grew up in Compton. She seethes silently, she said, during classmates’ “free speech” diatribes.
Other students told me similar stories of being afraid to speak up or even walk on campus alone.
So many students have missed classes or gone home that university officials have agreed not to penalize them academically.
Strolling the sunny, tree-lined campus, I found it hard to imagine backpack-carrying students as hooded racists. But it’s clear the fear is real.
“I don’t think anything is going to happen,” said Zowie Agbaosi, a third-year student who -- like our president -- has a white mother and Nigerian father.
“But the noose, the hood . . . those are symbols intended to instill fear. It makes you wonder how far it will go,” she said.
It’s been a wake-up call for white students like Stephanie, who graduated from Fairfax High in Los Angeles and grew up with a diverse group of buddies. She’s embarrassed not just by the vile things white classmates have said, “but that they say it out in the open; they don’t care who hears.”
And it’s clear this has morphed into something much more than hurt feelings over ethnic slights.
“It’s gone beyond the party, beyond the news stories, beyond the [white] hood,” said Laura Gutierrez, a graduate student from Arcadia who earned a B.A. from USC and an M.A. from Stanford. “It’s about the things that need to change on this university,” she said. “And it’s uniting the campus in a way it hasn’t been before.”
I saw evidence on my visit of the controversy’s impact and reach: the white and Latino graduate students selling “Don’t UC Racism” T-shirts, the posters by gays and lesbians; and the “Si se puede!” cheers from students as janitors and cafeteria workers joined their rally.
University officials have agreed to rewrite the student code of conduct, step up student and faculty recruitment and fund more ethnic studies courses.
Black alums told me they have heard that before. But it’s an encouraging victory for these young students, who are drawing on new tools and alliances to chart a social justice course.
“We’re here to listen to the students,” the conveners of Wednesday’s church meeting announced.
Then they spent 30 minutes introducing ministers and politicians and civil rights dignitaries before any student got a turn at the microphone.
The old guard unfurled a long list of grievances and hurts -- failing schools, job discrimination and political invisibility.
“I grew up here,” the Rev. Walter G. Wells, pastor of Mt. Erie Baptist Church, told the crowd. “San Diego has never been kind to black people.” The young activists offered hope and power. They talked not about white students’ infractions but black students’ plans: more outreach to high schools, community hosts for families of black applicants; and stronger alliances with other “students of color.”
As the meeting wound down, I realized I was witnessing a passing of the baton. NAACP state President Alice Huffman was calling for a black caucus investigation, jail time for the noose-hanging student and a barrage of letters to UC President Mark Yudof.
Black Student Union Vice President Fnann Keflezighi was steering people to its website: RealPainRealAction.org.