Black Miami students sense racial divide

Friday, November 13, 1998

Miami University is an idyllic place, where students come to learn in stately buildings on the tree-lined Oxford campus.

It is also a place where students are coming face-to-face with the ugliness of racism.

African-American students, in particular, face the intimidation and daily tension of living in fear just because their skin is black. Fear is a lousy thing to learn. And if that's the lesson some Miami students leave Oxford with, the racists have won.

Racism resurfaced at Miami on Halloween Eve. Some twisted individual with computer skills broke into the Center for Black Culture and Learning. Messages supporting the Ku Klux Klan were stuck on bulletin boards along with a crude drawing of a hanging. Racist slogans were placed on computer screen savers.

The incident hit two black Miami students, Carlotta Duke and Teria Fields, pretty hard. Both women told me they are "distracted," "disturbed," "shocked" and "afraid."

At a time in life when they should be open to all ideas, these two young women, and likely many other Miami students, must fend off the hateful thoughts of anonymous racists.

Uneasy feelings

Carlotta Duke sees racism at Miami as "a constant distraction" to getting an education.

"It's been a very rough four years here," said the 21-year-old senior business major from North Avondale. "Every day, you are reminded of the color of your skin. It's horrible."

The reminders are "little things like someone holding a door open for whites but letting it close in your face. I pray for those people.

"In the classroom, when issues on race are discussed, you are expected to be the spokesman for your race," she said. "You can't be who you are. You can't just be a person."

The break-in shocked freshman Teria Fields. The 18-year-old math major went to Winton Woods High School, "a very diverse place where everybody, all races, got along."

At Miami, "People say 'Hi.' They look nice. They dress nice. Nobody wears T-shirts that say, 'I'm for the KKK.' But you never know what they're thinking."

Teria thinks twice now when strangers approach. Walking outside her dorm this week, she heard "someone come up from behind. I found myself looking twice. The first time, I was just being normally cautious. The second time, I wondered: 'Was he in on the break-in? Is he a racist? How can you tell?' "

Forward march

The people behind the break-in should be tracked down and dragged out into the open. What they did is no college prank. They didn't soap somebody's windows or T-P a frat house. They committed a crime and laced it with hate.

After these creeps are caught, the "little things" Carlotta Duke told me about must be addressed. "Perceived racism is as bad as real racism," said Robert "Chip" Harrod, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati region of the National Conference for Community and Justice.

He recommends Miami set up seminars and required courses to combat racism. "Create a model society instead of mirroring the imperfect one that exists."

Miami's president, James Garland, told me he's open to "constructive dialogue." He also approves of "peaceful protests by students that unite us, not create divisions."

I'm interested in that peaceful protest part, which I think can send a powerful message to both the racist cowards and black students like Carlotta and Teria.

Think of a huge group of students, of all races, marching with faculty, staff and townspeople across Miami's campus, marching against racism.

Such a march would send a message for all to hear: Hate crimes won't be tolerated on the streets of Oxford. Racial intolerance has no place at Miami. And we're going to work to keep it that way.

From time to time, people take to the streets for good reasons. Now's the time to live up to the spirit and beauty of Oxford and the Miami campus, to make a statement as lovely as the town.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.