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Derrick Z. Jackson

Clueless at Dartmouth

After another black-mocking frat party, the usual spin is not enough

Anthony Russo for the Boston Globe

Dartmouth College far too often seems to exist solely to reveal the depths of racial catatonia among cloistered white students. The latest example is a “Bloods and Crips” party held in July by the Alpha Delta fraternity and the Tri Delta sorority. The party degenerated into the same kind of “ghetto party” held 15 years ago by the Chi Gamma Epsilon fraternity and the Alpha Xi Delta sorority, mocking black culture and low-income African-American communities through dress, language, and hairdos.

Though the years may be apart, the level and range of hurt never changes for students of color who feel disrespected either because they, in fact, do not come from ghettos, or precisely because they survived them. In 1998, one student responded to the virtual blackface party by saying, “I live in a ghetto. For Dartmouth students in general to mock a situation that I was lucky enough to get out of by the grace of God just seems to me very snotty and very ignorant, because my next door neighbor couldn’t dream of being here right now.”

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As for the 2013 party, a black student who also came from a ghetto told the Globe that the party could only have been concocted by students who have never “seen anything dangerous in their whole lives . . . I used to not be able to wear certain colors on certain streets.”

Why Dartmouth keeps finding itself in these predicaments is not explained by any surface lack of diversity. The school is often stereotyped as an isolated college in a very white state, but its 2012 freshman enrollment was 7.9 percent black, putting it in the middle of the pack of the nation’s top research universities and higher than Notre Dame, Virginia, USC, Tufts, Michigan, Georgetown, and the University of Chicago. I’ve had a brother-in-law and two cousins graduate from Dartmouth and all went on to professional careers.

Yet a peculiar drumbeat of hurtful actions that easily cross the line of free speech keeps punctuating the news. I was on the Dartmouth Green in 1986 to cover the destruction by conservative students of “shanties” erected to protest Dartmouth’s investments in companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. The flare-ups remain as current as anti-Asian e-mails in 2009, anti-black graffiti last school year, and continued charges of homophobia and sexism.

What is particularly disturbing about the newest incident is that several students did not speak to the Globe on the record against the party, fearing a blacklash from their peers. That makes the Dartmouth administration derelict in its duties, allowing fraternities and sororities to create an atmosphere of fear that harms equal opportunity. While 88 percent of black Dartmouth students graduate, a wonderful number to be sure, 97 percents of white students get their Dartmouth degrees, creating the largest graduation gap in the Ivy League.

If Dartmouth truly wants to make unacceptable the hurtful mocking of students, it must go beyond the usual spin cycle of touchy-feely campus forums that are forgotten as students graduate. Alpha Delta and Tri Delta issued apologies, but the fact that such groups continue to host insulting parties demands sanctions from the administration. New president Philip Hanlon, a 1977 Alpha Delta Dartmouth graduate, should ban his old fraternity and Tri Delta this school year.

The frat brothers and sisters can earn their Greek houses back by demonstrating a fresh respect for the many life roads that lead to Dartmouth, most particularly the idea that those who arrive via freeways of white privilege have nothing on youth of color who dodge potholes of poverty and stereotypes along the way. To that latter end, Alpha Delta and Tri Delta members can start informing themselves by seeing “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the terrific, fictionalized story of an African-American man who served many presidents in the White House, enduring a world of slights at work while being accused at home by a son of being an Uncle Tom.

The “Bloods and Crips” party came to light as a new Reuters poll found that nearly half of white Americans ages 18 to 29 report having none or only one close friend of color — even as we have our first African-American president. Dartmouth is hardly the only college where too many white students live in their own ghettos of stereotypes. But three decades of cluelessness at Dartmouth requires the college to prove it finally has a clue and the courage to evict white students out of their ghetto.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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