At the time, the comment went unremarked. But soon afterward, a black assistant professor filed a complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs (EOP), alleging discriminatory harassment and claiming the anthropology department fosters an environment in which racial hostility is tolerated. The EOP, which looks into every formal complaint, launched an investigation into the matter and made several recommendations, all of which were implemented. The contrite faculty member issued a verbal and written apology, as did the department chair. The entire department was asked to undergo voluntary diversity training, and the professor was reprimanded.

The University issued a public statement acknowledging that a “highly inappropriate and offensive racial expression” had been used and explaining the action taken. “The University will continue to work to ensure all members of our community respect and embrace the diversity Emory values so highly,” the statement read.

The EOP did not find evidence of a “pattern of workplace hostility,” however, and determined the racial epithet to be an isolated incident. The faculty member, who has let her written apology stand as her only public comment since the event, is described by colleagues as highly progressive and a “knee-jerk liberal.” In her written statement she said that she used the phrase in what she considered an academic context, and she deeply regretted her words and their effect.

But perhaps more importantly, the remark inadvertently broke open the floodgates of an undercurrent of ambiguous race relations that many at the University agree needs to be dealt with more openly. The use of a racial slur in a public setting may indeed be exceedingly rare, but black students and faculty alike came forward and began to speak of a campus climate that is tolerant of more subtle forms of racism. Students, in particular, started to talk about a sense of cultural apathy and social “self-segregation,” wondering about the limiting effects of such separation on their student experience. Faculty brought up the relative shortage of African Americans in top Emory positions, including tenured professorships. A series of articles and editorials by various community members poured into the Emory Wheel, Emory Report, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“This unpleasant season should prompt not lingering acrimony, but a renewed urgency to make Emory, already a national treasure, a place where all feel welcome, valued and respected as community members,” read an AJC editorial.

In December, a group of twenty-eight African American faculty members and administrators wrote an open letter to President James W. Wagner.

“We appreciate the administration’s decision to impose appropriate sanctions,” they wrote. “However, we do not want to lose sight of the broader concern, which is this: the presence of an institutional culture that sustains a subtle (though occasionally overt) hostile racial environment at Emory.”

Mark Sanders, director of the African American Studies program, served on the committee that drafted the statement. The faculty’s reaction, he says, stemmed not so much from the comment itself as from a more generalized frustration with the handling of incidents they deemed to be racially discriminatory.

“On the surface, it’s a direct response to statements . . . stressing that the unfortunate incident was isolated,” Sanders says. “Black faculty on the subcommittee felt very strongly that this was yet another example in a much longer history of expressions of racism.”

In a parallel effort, students including members of Emory’s Black Student Alliance organized the Concerned Students Coalition in response to the comment and to another incident that took place soon afterward on Halloween. Two non-Emory students attended a campus Halloween party dressed in blackface, commonly regarded as racially offensive because of its historical connotations. Event organizers confronted the visitors, who were not from the U.S., and asked them to wash the blackface off, which they did. Still, the appearance of blackface only served to feed the rising tide of concern over the racial climate at Emory.

“In order for healthy reconciliation to emerge, we must recognize that wounds have been opened and challenge the very framework that has placed us in this vulnerable position,” the Concerned Students Coalition wrote. “We dwell in an environment that continuously wishes to forget but never takes tangible measures to move forward.”

Both the students and faculty included specific recommendations for improving Emory’s racial environment, such as campuswide diversity training, a greater commitment and increased funding to ethnic studies and programs, and an objective review of the EOP’s policies and procedures.

Just four months into his new role, President Wagner nonetheless met the discourse openly, offering his own statement to the University community and hosting a town hall meeting and numerous other forums where he listened as much as he talked. In a letter published in campus newspapers the Wheel and Emory Report, he acknowledged that “a hurtful wound” had been inflicted, though unintentionally.

“Of deeper concern than the individual incidents,” he wrote, “is how we must react to them as a wake-up call that the business of building real community is not a passive one. Rather, just like any would-be strong relationship, the relationships within our community must be given deliberate and ongoing attention. We must work now not just to heal but to learn from these mistakes and go beyond healing to work continuously to build strength as never before in the fabric of our community.”

From the beginning, Wagner characterized the anthropology incident and its aftermath as an opportunity–a valuable chance to take a hard, honest measure of the racial climate at Emory and take tangible steps to strengthen the community. Diversity is an integral part of Wagner’s vision and an area where he means for Emory to prove itself a leader.

“Incidents like this don’t occur if the community is fully healthy,” he said during an interview in his office one freezing January morning. “But I have real optimism that this has come at a time when–perhaps more than in the past–we can use it to help us make a commitment to building community.”

Gary Hauk ’91PhD, Secretary of the University and the author of a history of Emory, says the University’s shared response to the autumn events was “perfectly in keeping with the best of Emory’s past.

“The first thing to note is that when everything hit the fan the community came together to talk about it,” he says. “It was clear that there could be no reconciliation without accountability, but also that the ultimate aim was the sort of community that can come only from reconciliation. Those of us who have been at Emory a long time have seen this phenomenon before. The cynical response is to say that there is never anything but talk. But I believe talk is indispensable to arriving at a shared story, which undergirds our way of being together in a community. One hopes that the story will be ennobling and not one that leads to despair.”

A scant half-century after desegregation, scholars of race relations say historical racism still shadows many campuses even as they make deliberate efforts to diversify. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on five incidents of a particular type of racial insensitivity–blackface–during a single month in 2001; similar incidents were noted at a half dozen other respected institutions since 1991. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, two Georgia State University fraternity members appeared in blackface at an off-campus party in January 2004. The phenomenon is not confined to the South; one of the episodes reported by the Chronicle took place in Ohio, and Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, reported an incident of blackface in February 2004.

In the wake of a June 2003 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a point-based affirmative-action policy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, universities nationwide have been challenged to fine-tune their positions on race-conscious admissions, most recently at the University of Georgia. And the Ivy League’s Brown and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa are among those dealing with the complicated question of reparations related to the institutions’ connections to the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Emory isn’t the first institution to grapple with the equally complex question of why all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria. In fact, that’s the title of a book by Beverly D. Tatum, now president of Atlanta’s historically black Spelman College. Tatum views minorities’ tendency to stick together as part of the natural process of finding and affirming their racial identity, and almost no one, including Emory students, seems to think that’s all bad.

Henry Hunter, a lanky, easygoing junior from Tallahassee majoring in sociology, says there is definitely a process of self-segregation on campus, but it doesn’t bother him much. “I have never felt unwelcome by white students; it just so happens that I usually find myself in groups of black students,” Hunter says. “I don’t think anybody feels excluded.”

“Emory students do self-segregate, but it is not an inherently bad thing,” agrees Juno Lawrence, an African American junior from Colorado majoring in international studies and Spanish with a minor

in community building and social change. “Segregation occurs naturally with large groups of people because individuals tend to identify with people whose experiences and histories are similar to their own. However, this can, and has, become a problem when one never steps outside of that safe comfort zone.”

“As a freshman,” adds junior Samuel Wakefield, “like most black students, I frequented what has been termed ‘the black hole’ because that is where most of my friends sat and ate. The same can be said for other ethnic groups who segregate themselves in the [Dobbs University Center] and other places on campus. There is nothing wrong with being comfortable with people like yourself; the problem arises when our comfort keeps us from engaging with people who are unlike ourselves.”

Indeed, it’s this high degree of voluntary separation that worries President Wagner. “To be a true scholarly community, a university must be a safe place, but not just for diverse groups and individuals to coexist,” Wagner says. “That is not enough. A university must be a safe place, of course, but it must also encourage encounter and engagement among diverse groups.”

Amanda Edwards, an African American College senior from Houston who was a key leader in organizing the Concerned Students Coalition, says the normally tepid student climate shifted and heated up in the aftermath of the anthropology affair. The vast majority of the 250 or so students who joined the response effort were African American.

“I think black students felt like white students were uninterested, like it was not their problem,” Edwards says. “They wanted to treat it like an isolated incident. But our point was, [racial] incidents have been happening very regularly here. This is a climate that makes people comfortable enough to say things like that. We were just hoping it would not be swept under the rug, that there would be an institutional reaction that demonstrates Emory’s leadership.”

Emory Wheel editor-in-chief Andrew Ackerman, who is white, views the recent and ongoing debate as a welcome chance for some healthy activism and airing of opinions. The pages of the Wheel have offered the words of blacks and whites, students and faculty, alumni, Wagner, and the Wheel staff, training a particularly bright spotlight on the EOP.

“There are some perceptions, I think, among minority students that there are deep-rooted problems, not just isolated incidents,” Ackerman says. “And for white students who don’t have to grapple with these issues every day, they are shocked. They really don’t discuss race because they don’t have to. So for students, it’s an issue a lot of people have begun talking about and it’s a little tense. But I think it’s the faculty who really have to deal with it the most.”

In their open letter to President Wagner, black faculty referenced a “series of well-documented insults to African Americans–including blackface ridicule and outright racial confrontations–dating back at least twenty-five years.” In addition to a number of racially charged situations involving students, there have been at least two formal charges of discriminatory hiring practices and a high-profile lawsuit filed in 1988 by a black professor who was denied tenure, she claimed, because of her race. (The professor lost the suit.) Faculty have long criticized the relative lack of minorities in high positions.

At the same time, at the topmost level, Emory administrators including former presidents James T. Laney and William M. Chace demonstrated a conscious commitment to making Emory a more racially diverse, culturally sensitive environment. Among other formal initiatives, the President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities, established by Laney in 1979, has remained a vital force.

Since 1980, Emory has shown the largest increase in black enrollment of any of the nation’s top twenty-six universities and ranks in the top three for highest percentage of black faculty, with 6.9 percent, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Eighteen percent of Emory’s administrative positions are held by African Americans, the EOP reports. The University recently augmented its top-ranking black administrators with the appointment of Earl Lewis as provost (see story, p. 2).

“I think that, with a few exceptions, the administration has tended to act cautiously but progressively for the past thirty-five years,” says Hauk. “Blessed with the dubious crystal clarity of historical hindsight, I would say that President Atwood made some misjudgments in the spring of 1969 in responding to black students protesting what they considered unfair treatment of employees. Out of that confrontation, however, came the establishment of the Black Student Alliance and the Employee Council, and the appointment of the first African American administrator, Marvin Arrington, who’s now a member of the Board of Trustees.

“President Laney’s administration bore the stamp of his career as a minister. He was tough-minded but deeply caring. As an ethicist he brought powerful analytical skills to bear on the social injustices in America and in our institutions, and he used his position to try to rectify some of those injustices. . . . President Chace carried a long history of commitment to civil rights, including getting arrested during a peaceful civil rights protest [while teaching at historically black Stillman College].”

With a stated top-down commitment to increasing diversity, established equal opportunity policies, and minority numbers climbing, one of the challenges for Emory has remained dealing effectively with racial conflict when it does arise. Much of the discussion last fall focused on the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. Headed for twenty-two years by Vice President Robert Ethridge, the EOP is responsible for ensuring that Emory complies with federal and state antidiscrimination laws and investigating any complaints of discrimination. While the office averages about six complaints a month, cases of racially discriminatory harassment are rare, says Ethridge, who is black.

Compared to similar institutions, “I think [the number of complaints we receive] is about average, maybe on the low side,” Ethridge says. “We watch these complaints to see if they indicate areas where we need to do training.”

In the case of the complaint against the anthropology department, the process moved efficiently, Ethridge says, because the professor in question acknowledged her mistake and the department agreed to the EOP’s suggestions.

Still, some faculty and students thought the matter was not handled well enough and cited a handful of past cases in which they felt the EOP’s investigation into discrimination complaints was less than thorough. The African American faculty who wrote to President Wagner called for an external review of the office, including an examination of the appeal process.

Wagner has said an outside review of the EOP, with an eye to best practices, is “reasonable,” and Ethridge readily agrees, saying, “If we have missed something, I would just as soon correct it.” A four-person review panel headed by an independent consultant with three officials from other universities has been assigned the task. An internal committee also has been formed to review the current antidiscriminatory harassment policy.

In addition to general concerns about the EOP’s investigation, some faculty were unhappy with the office’s specific recommendations, namely the suggestion of diversity training for the anthropology department. While a few objected to the fact that the training session was conducted by an internal expert–associate professor of religion Thee Smith, who is black and has experience in conflict resolution–rather than an outside professional, others protested being required to undergo such training at all. At a November townhall meeting where President Wagner facilitated open discussion, a few faculty members characterized the training as an entire group being “punished” for the actions of one; others saw it as a benign opportunity to learn about differences.

Ann Hartle, professor of philosophy and president of the Georgia chapter of the National Association of Scholars, has taken a public stand against required diversity training on the grounds that it threatens individual liberty. Hartle also has defended the use of racial expressions under certain circumstances as protected by the principles of academic freedom.

“[The professor] used the expression as a metaphor for the way her own field is regarded by some anthropologists,” Hartle wrote in a letter to President Wagner which was signed by three other professors. “[Her] remark is clearly protected under the principle of academic freedom. The imposition of sanctions for her protected speech is not only a violation of academic freedom, it is a grave threat to academic freedom on this campus. In this regard, it must be said that the university’s policy statement on discriminatory harassment is inconsistent with academic freedom and with an atmosphere of free and open exchange of ideas.” Hartle also called mandatory diversity training “a violation of academic freedom and the rights of individuals.” (In fact, the diversity training for the anthropology department was ultimately declared voluntary, although all department members attended except the one who had filed the complaint and objected to an internal facilitator.)

Some students also objected to the suggestion that academic requirements include diversity education. A white College senior wrote a piece for the Wheel claiming those who advocated the training were merely capitalizing on the situation to advance an existing political agenda. At least two other white students wrote pieces saying that the remark was not meant to be racist; an Asian student suggested the comment should be accepted because “Free thought trumps all.”

The academic freedom defense of the remark, coupled with some faculty’s stated unwillingness to undergo diversity training, galvanized members of the Concerned Students Coalition. “That response was very alarming,” Edwards says. “It is antithetical that people at a University would not embrace opportunities to learn about what we don’t know. It was not a punishment.”

The suggestion that racial epithets are protected by academic freedom also angered professors, among them Nathan McCall, a visiting lecturer in Emory’s journalism program. In an editorial in the Emory Wheel, McCall criticized his colleagues who, he suggested, failed to set a positive example of openness and reconciliation for their students because they were more concerned with protecting their own autonomy. “Because of some professors’ insistence on clinging to their privileges,” he wrote, “many students will leave Emory unprepared to cope in a diverse world.”

While he has unswervingly urged forgiveness and tolerance, President Wagner does not support the notion that the use of a racial expression is acceptable in any context.

“We must have open dialogue and debate,” Wagner says. “We need to be able to talk and even to argue; that’s consistent with academic freedom–it means we don’t have to hold back. But all this needs to be governed by a code of conduct that guards and keeps us from excluding anybody from that exchange. Academic freedom comes with a certain responsibility for inclusiveness, and it is damaged if it is falsely understood to be unfettered in terms of language.”

Throughout the outpouring of public statements, letters, and debate, Wagner has kept his tone hopeful and tried to get at the heart of the matter.

“I think what all this proves is that numbers alone do not necessarily make us a diverse community,” he says. “Community implies interaction, communication, even passionate anger–that’s all okay as long as there is a genuine commitment to being a community. Emory’s vision is for a diverse community that exhibits courageous leadership, and we might now begin to embark on a path through which we are a leadership example for other institutions. Emory has run out of excuses, and we know we can do more.”

Even those students and faculty in the thick of the debate have indicated they can feel the potential for genuine, lasting progress. “If he were still alive, Martin Luther King would only be seventy-five,” black student Henry Hunter mused during King Week in January. “We can’t expect it to be an ethnic utopia yet. Emory is normal, if not more tolerant than other places. A degree of racism is inevitable and I don’t think Emory exceeds that. I just think we should be leaders in wiping out what’s left.”

To that end, President Wagner has developed a central concept that he hopes will help Emory navigate the troubled waters of race relations in the weeks and months to come– an aim he calls “the practice of community.” This idea is based on the notion that a community made up of countless organic, changeable relationships among diverse people cannot ever be successfully and completely achieved, any more than, say, a perfect marriage can be achieved. Community can only be practiced.

“As part of the larger social context of the United States, Emory and other complex social institutions can hardly be considered immune to the forces of prejudice and poor habits that vex our social fabric,” Wagner wrote in the first of a series of pieces on “the practice of community” in Emory Report. “Rather than attempt (once again) to ‘resolve’ racial issues episodically, we must not only seek to move beyond these confining forces and habits but also develop a practice of community that transcends our current situation. . . .

“I am heartened by the commitment shown to civil discourse and academic freedom on this campus,” Wagner wrote. “Students, staff, and faculty want to effect full consonance between the University’s language and its practice, and between the ingredients for a truly diverse community and the still elusive reality.”



© 2004 Emory University