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Racially-Insensitive Costume Party Causes Consternation at UT Law


A group of first-year law students at the University of Texas at Austin have been chided by the dean for participating in a “Ghetto Fabulous”-themed costume party and posting the pictures online.

It’s the latest racially insensitive incident to emerge from the university, which has struggled for years to boost minority enrollment and make students of color feel welcome.

“Among the many ways to happily party in Austin, this particular one was singularly heedless and odious,” Dean Larry Sager said in an Oct. 6 e-mail to the law school’s student body.

Nick Transier, a first-year student who attended the party in September and posted pictures on his Web site, says nobody there meant to offend anyone of any race.

“We had no intention by any measure to choose a group or class of people and make fun of them,” says the 26-year-old Houston native.

But the photos, in which partygoers carried 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and wore Afro wigs, necklaces with large medallions and name tags bearing stereotypically Black and Hispanic names, upset some Black law students, says Sophia Lecky, president of the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society.

“I just thought overall that it was kind of insensitive, that it was mocking a group of people or a class of people in just a real stereotypical or negative way,” she says. Lecky’s group aims to improve the academic and social climate for Black UT law students.

The group showed the pictures to Rey Ramos, the law school’s assistant dean for student affairs, who brought them to Sager’s attention.

Sager and Gregory Vincent, UT’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, met with about 18 students who were at the party. Sager says he is convinced the students didn’t think about what they were going to do and how it would make their classmates feel. No disciplinary action was planned.

“It’s understandable that students could innocently misbehave in this way, but it is indeed misbehavior,” he says.

About 70 of UT’s roughly 1,300 law students are Black, according to the university’s preliminary enrollment figures. There are about 800 White students, 225 Hispanic students, 75 Asian students, 55 foreign students and 75 who did not report an ethnicity.

Black enrollment plummeted after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1996 in favor of Cheryl Hopwood and three other White applicants, who sued the UT law school after they were denied admission in favor of minority candidates. There were only 17 Black students enrolled in the fall of 1999, though that number has been steadily climbing.

The university as a whole also has had trouble with diversity and racial insensitivity.

Former UT President Larry Faulkner ordered sweeping changes in the university’s curriculum and culture in 2004 following a series of incidents that included the egging of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue and fraternity parties where Blacks were portrayed in Jim Crow-style racial stereotypes.

The university hired Vincent last year to improve diversity on campus. Last Thursday, UT announced the appointment of an associate vice president who will work to diversify the faculty and staff.

Transier says he and other partygoers have met with members of the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society and apologized.

“In hindsight, is it something I won’t do again?” he says. “It’s one of those things that you learn from and move on.”

— Associated Press


Reader comments on this story:

There are currently 6 reader comments on this story:

“this is not innocent misbehavior”
Sager says he is convinced the students didn’t think about what they were going to do and how it would make their classmates feel. No disciplinary action was planned.

     These are supposed to be educated people.  It’s not about “how it would make classmates feel” it’s about poor judgment, it’s about stereotyping and it’s about ignorance.  This is not “innocent misbehavior” it is racism & classism. This isn’t just offensive to people of color – this is or SHOULD BE offensive to all of us.

-Sandi O’Brien
Sioux City, Iowa

“think about impact instead of intent”
It’s always the same excuse of doing something with no bad intention.  “The road to hell is always paved with good intentions.” Why are white students always engaging in these kind of activities?  It’s because they have the power and the privilege of doing so with impunity. I haven’t heard of students of color doing stereotypes of white people and usually the latter find it difficult to come up with stereotypes of their group.  Let everyone think about impact instead of intent when they decide to put down another group of human beings.
-Henry Bourgeois
Reston, VA

“lack of commitment to diversity at UT”
There is no way I believe that these students did not know that what they were doing was bigoted, offensive, and inappropriate. The fact that they are not being disciplined shows a lack of commitment to diversity at UT. Hiring a diversity VP and then letting something like this go without properly addressing this kind of behavior sends mixed messages. This incident, the wrong-headed thinking, and the lack of action on the part of UT administration is infuriating and offensive.

-K.A. Nash
Baltimore, MD

Keep in mind that law school students are not your average age undergraduates in the 18-22 year old range. We are talking about a particularly insensitive event by men and women who have supposedly passed through the maturation process of undergraduate education. They are older students engaged in professional training leading to careers that should resoundingly reject the very odious behavior in which they were engaged. This does not speak well to their judgment as future lawyers and judges who must defend the constitutional rights of minorities. Reprehensible behaviors.
-Kenneth Whitehurst
Durham, NC

“shame on UT administrators”
These students are too old and educated to use the “poor judgement” defense. So what are they being taught at UT Law? It’s clear to me–throw the rock then play dumb. Shame on them and shame on UT administrators for reacting with such leniency.

-A.P. Campbell
Summerville, SC

“no discipline warranted”
There is no question that the party-goers were insensitive and negatively stereotyped black people. Their conduct was clearly inappropriate; however, I believe the dean appropriately addressed the issue with the email to the student body. No discipline was warranted and here’s why: there is no mention that the party took place at the law school or that it was any manner sponsored by the law school; no laws were violated. While I do not approve of the party-goers costumes and believe the party theme is silly and sophomoric, I do not believe that over-censoring these young people is appropriate either.
-Steve S.
New York

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