The resurgence of campus racism has been a big topic in the news for nearly a year now. According to the often-cited National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence in Baltimore, the number grows all the time. By mid-1989, the institute had reported “racist incidents” on 175 different campuses within the last three years.

I live close to Stanford University and use its libraries. I was therefore interested to read, two Octobers back, that the scourge of bigotry had moved in right next door. Like most reports on campus racism, this one was long on handwringing and short on facts. It spoke darkly of a “defaced poster of Beethoven.” It wasn’t clear what had been written on the poster, but the implication was that it was fiercely racist and that we were to worry about it.

That poster has dragged Stanford permanently into the camp of the racists, and has become another symbol for bigoted white people. California newspapers have repeatedly mentioned the incident, as has The New York Times, Harper’s, and, most recently (the September 25, 1989 issue), Newsweek. In every instance the Beethoven poster was trotted out as evidence of the wickedness of white students, but without any hint of what really happened or why.

Stanford takes racism seriously. It puts all of its freshmen through intensive preventive seminars on the subject, and has deans for minority affairs, minority activities, and ethnic studies courses. It didn’t sit well for the university to be known nationally as a hotbed of racism, so President Donald Kennedy ordered a full investigation into the Beethoven poster matter and got a ten-thousand-word report. He made the report public in the hope that other colleges could profit from it. Frankly, I doubt that they will find it edifying. However, the journalists who routinely use episodes like this as shorthand for white racism could learn a lot from it—if they would read it.

The incident centers around Ujamaa House, which is Stanford’s “African-theme” dormitory. In 1988, more than half of its 127 residents were black. One evening in October, some undergraduates stood talking in the hallway. In the course of the conversation one of the black students whom the report calls “QC” (the report uses pseudonyms throughout), claimed that all music in America has African origins. A white student then asked about Beethoven, to which QC replied that Beethoven was black. Several white freshmen, including one whom the report calls “Fred,” openly doubted that.

Later that evening, Fred found a Stanford Orchestra poster with a big picture of Beethoven on it. Using a crayon, he gave Beethoven an afro and black features, and hung the poster outside QC’s room. QC found it the next day and was “flabbergasted.” Another black Ujamaa resident called it “hateful, shocking,” and said she was “outraged and sickened.”

Initially unaware of their reaction, and indeed having had no reaction to the poster for several days, Fred nevertheless began to worry that it might have given offense. He went to his teaching assistant for advice, and the TA suggested he do nothing: “Let it blow over.”

Meanwhile, someone scrawled the word “niggers” across a poster advertising a dance at a black fraternity. Coming on top of the Beethoven poster, this caused much fury at Ujamaa House. A black resident TA (then a sophomore) who suspected that Fred was responsible for at least the Beethoven poster went to Fred’s room to ask him about it. To scare the truth out of him, the TA said that Ujamaa students were going to beat him up. Fred promptly admitted marking up the Beethoven poster. But it was clear, according to the report, that he had had nothing to do with the “niggers” poster. After an unpleasant grilling from the black staff at Ujamaa House, Fred agreed to publicly explain his motives two days later.

About one hundred people were at the meeting, including a 38-year-old black dean, James W. Lyons, dean of student affairs. Fred gave a speech in which he explained that when he first came to Stanford, he was shocked and offended by the emphasis on race. He said he had come from a multiracial environment, but that race was not the central fact of life. He said he disliked what he called “ethnic aggressivity,” and that the campus obsession with race was “stupid.” A friend of his had been upset to meet a black student who insisted she would never marry anyone but another black. Fred then said he had defaced the Beethoven poster because it was a “good opportunity to show the black students how ridiculous it was to focus on race.” He said the poster was “satirical humor.”

A black student interrupted: “You arrogant bastard. How dare you come here and not even apologize. I want an apology.” Fred made a perfunctory apology, which the blacks did not accept, and there followed a hostile clamor that Fred be expelled from his dormitory (he lived next to Ujamaa House). Mr. Lyons came to Fred’s defense and argued that the Beethoven poster was not a big deal, that Fred should stay. The black students then turned on the dean, and attacked him repeatedly in a “loud and insulting manner.” (They would later claim that the dean had “stabbed them in the back.”) QC stood up and said it was arrogant of the dean to downplay the Beethoven poster, and that he could not tolerate having Fred live next door. He accused Fred of “dogmatic racism,” and of having used the poster to insult him personally. After a few minutes of this, QC started crying, became hysterical, and moved toward Fred. He shouted something to the effect that back in Chicago, where he was from, he could kill Fred for a thing like that. He then lunged at Fred and collapsed. Six or seven students carried him out of the room, according, again, to the report, “crying and screaming and having a fit.”

The meeting then fell apart, as did many students, with about sixty of them crying, some screaming, and others in a daze. One student hyperventilated and had to be helped to breathe. In the midst of all this, some of the students continued to argue heatedly with James Lyons, who finally agreed to expel Fred from his dorm. With this the meeting ended.

Two days later, two of the white residents at Ujamaa found notices pushed under their doors that said: “Non-blacks leave our home/you are not welcome at Ujamaa.” The same notice appeared on the bulletin board. Also that day someone defaced the photo display of the freshmen in Ujamaa by punching holes in white faces. Later that week a few signs turned up around campus that read: “Avenge Ujamaa. Smash the honkie oppressors!”

This, in summary, is the “racial incident” that added Stanford to the list of campuses where white racism is on a dangerous upswing. I don’t know what happened at the other 174 campuses on the list, other than what I read in the newspapers. The reports talk about a slur here, a bias there, a swastika somewhere else. I suspect that these incidents aren’t as simple or one-sided as they are said to be, either.

Furthermore, though it may be mean-spirited to say so, I suspect that anyone who could accuse Fred of “dogmatic racism” is probably capable of writing “niggers” on a poster. The only people who benefit from that kind of anonymous miscreance are the minority activists who want to further their own racial agenda. More than one campus administrator has wondered just how many such incidents are provocation by, not against, minority groups.

But what’s been happening at Stanford lately? Last March Stanford duly released a 244-page report on campus race relations. Because of incidents like the one at Ujamaa House, the report called for thirty new minority faculty, twice as many minority graduate students, twice as many courses on race relations, an obligatory undergraduate course in ethnic studies, and an assortment of workshops, review boards, executive committees, and task forces.

Undaunted by the extreme scarcity of qualified minorities, Stanford’s President Kennedy has agreed to the recommendations on nonwhite graduate students and faculty. He has yet to decide on the rest of the report. Not satisfied with this, sixty members of the Stanford Students of Color Coalition, with the poster incident on their lips, occupied the president’s office in May and were arrested. As has been the case on many campuses, the reactions to what appear to be minor and ambiguous incidents have been far more disruptive than the incidents themselves.

Obligatory classes in ethnic studies are, of course, precisely what we do not need. They will only encourage aggressive ethnicity, which will fuel a nasty backlash, which has already begun. At Smith College, someone recently painted “Niggers, Spies and Chinks quit complaining or get out” on a campus building. I suspect a white student did that, and though I certainly don’t condone it, I suspect I know why.