Roanoke Times & World News
November 18, 1990

Intolerance on Campus
Chills Blacks at Tech

Lack of Sensitivity from the White Majority
Poses a Constant Pressure to Many Minorities

by Daniel Howes

Higher Education Writer

Kimberly Vaughan and her boyfriend
Kimberly Vaughan and her boyfriend, Pete Pollock, walk to Virgnia Tech class;
social pressures that motivate her are considered by others to make for relentless stress.

ALAN KIM/staff

BLACKSBURG - It came after they watched a videotape of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, a question from a white professor pressing the only black student in the room for some special insight.

The question made Kimberly Vaughan angry that day in her public speaking class at Virginia Tech. She had only made a few observations about King's style. But the teacher wanted more.

"Just because I'm black am I supposed to know the speech by heart?" she said, recalling her first thought that day. "Just because I was black [the professor assumed] I could identify with it."

Not necessarily, especially for a 20-year-old from Leesburg who has a white boyfriend and says she would feel comfortable at Tech "if I was the only black on campus. I feel comfortable here because this is just like where I was brought up."

Other black students feel less welcome. They cite an administration whose actions do not keep pace with its progressive rhetoric; a town Police Department apparently perplexed by and fearful of a growing black student population; and many white students indifferent to racial and cultural sensitivities.

"The first days you'll go to class and you'll say, 'Hmm, I'm the only black student in here,'" Vaughan said, admitting it can feel a bit daunting. Yet, what she finds a motivator, others, such as Randy Lucas, consider a relentless pressure.

"I think I'm [more] aware of what I say. I feel like I always have to be right," Lucas, as senior from Richmond, said. "I can't say anything off the wall in class. I feel it's never an acceptance. I have to prove; I have to prove; I have to prove."

Whatever the perspective, and they are as diverse among black students as anywhere, a nagging reality remains: Tech's black students are virtually swallowed in a sea of white classmates, despite impressive gains in black enrollment in the past few years.

Increasing the black student and faculty population here takes time. While recruitment programs begin to bear fruit - witness the 64.6 percent increase in black applications this year over last - officials here find themselves preoccupied with "campus climate," the latest buzzwords in higher education.

Charles Pinder, one of 21 black professors among a faculty of nearly 2,000, said, "There's a perception by some students that we don't have problems and by others that we have mammoth problems."

Some black students and officials worry that a string of incidents involving black students and - at various times - town police officers, white students and blacks and whites from off campus, may chill a cultural climate that some say is warming within the classrooms and student body.

"Pockets of tolerance kind of balance it for us a bit, but as a campus community we have a long way to go," said one senior administrator, who is black. He called the climate 'around the tolerable level."

Kimberly Vaughan...public speaking class.
Kimberly Vaughan is the only black in her public
speaking class. She resents being singled out
during a discussion of a speech by Martin Luther King.

Tom Goodale, Tech's student affairs vice president, says his "most pressing issue" is the growing intolerance of incoming students. "You talk to these kids about Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy - any of the great civil rights leaders - and even the black students don't know about them."

Administrators who have worked with college students for decades, such as Goodale and Cornel Morton, special assistant to President James McComas, insist the racial tolerance of students has declined in recent years.

Searching for some explanation, they point to waning national leadership for civil rights during the Reagan-Bush years and suggest that many white students come from comparatively isolated communities that have not prepared them for living with - and accepting - people different from themselves.

Further, Morton thinks students who come form homes where parents take scant interest in civil rights and racial issues may often grow indifferent to minority concerns and hostile to affirmative action and other minority counseling programs.

"Whites and blacks who are concerned about race equity and racial justice very often see these issues in very different ways from different perspectives," he said. "Being white means not having to think about it."

Efforts to bolster minority representation within the student body and faculty may actually increase the tensions in and around Tech, as more minorities permeate the campus community and confront longheld biases.

While Tech's black leaders agree that the campus is no hotbed of racial strife, the school has had its share of racial controversies - many within the past year.

Several of the most recent incidents involved black students and Blacksburg police, others involved black students and townspeople, authorities said. Few of the reported encounters have pitted white students against their black classmates, a hopeful sign for students and officials attuned to campus climate.

Still consider: