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University of Virginia President Addresses Racial Incidents

In a rare move, University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III summoned students to the Rotunda — the heart of the historic campus in Charlottesville — where he discussed a plague of racial incidents that has marred the first few weeks of classes.

Casteen invoked the name of famed civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as he urged students to demonstrate unity against the racial intolerance at the root of at least nine racist incidents there, ranging from slurs shouted from cars to racist messages written on dry-erase boards.

Approximately 250 students gathered on the lawn to hear the message, pinning black ribbons to their shirts.

“A lot of people were wondering what the university’s stance was,” third-year student Janelle Todman of Pelham, N.Y., says. “This showed they’re really acting. It’s not just empty rhetoric.”

Solidarity has been strong at the school, a campus with a troubled racial history. Students rallied on the lawn after the first incidents wearing black shirts, hung signs disparaging intolerance and drew black ribbons on their dry-erase boards.

Alumni offered a reward for information and some students pushed to change the honor code to make acts of intolerance grounds for expulsion.

But below the surface, fear remains strong, says Dr. M. Rick Turner, dean of African-American affairs.

He calls the climate the worst he has seen in his 18 years with the university. “I call it racial terrorism — it’s gone beyond racial incidents. We have some African-American young ladies who are … afraid of going to class or going anywhere at their university.”

A group of parents from the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia and other areas will be in Charlottesville to meet with Casteen.

Administrators say they are committed to change. Casteen recently named the colleges first-ever vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, the result of a commission working on diversity issues for more than a year.

He called the perpetrators “cowards” and urged students to wear the ribbons.

Kyle Miller, a sophomore, was the victim of one of the incidents. Returning from a class, Miller discovered a note attached to his car windshield. The note was written in red ink, and contained a racist message written in all caps.

Miller’s mother, Alice P. Miller, who can remember having bottles thrown at her as a Boston undergraduate in the 1970s, tells her son to be careful when walking around campus now.

“This is now 2005,” she says. “It’s got to stop.”  

— Associated Press

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