The Public Interest

Black and white at Stanford

John H. Bunzel

Fall 1991

WHEN TWO WHITE students defaced a poster of Beethoven by giving the composer black features and an Afro, then hung the picture near tile door of a black student in the same dormitory—the African-American theme house, Ujamaa—Stanford was immediately added to the growing list of campuses where white racism was said to be on the upswing. But the actually incident was rather different from the version given in many press accounts. One October evening, some undergraduates in Ujamaa had argued over a black student’s claim that all music in America has African origins. When the discussion turned to Beethoven, the black student said that Beethoven was black. Several white students openly doubted the claim. The student who admitted to defacing the Beethoven poster later said he had done it because it was “a good opportunity to show the black students how ridiculous it was to focus on race” and that it was intended as “satirical humor.” Still, most newspapers reported the defacement as an act of racial aggression rather than a tasteless joke. Not for the first time the reporting of respected papers had dealt in simplistic generalizations. If American campuses are in the midst of a resurgence of racism—the single recurring theme of most media accounts—such alarmism might be justified. But the truth is more complicated. There is a pressing need for responsible investigation and analysis in the hope of generating more understanding of a difficult and complex problem.

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