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At Georgetown, Uneasy Candor

Tensions between blacks and whites over race are increasing on many campuses. Students at one elite college speak candidly about the issue. Part 1 of 2.

By Marshall IngwersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 1991



WASHINGTON

THE uncomfortable silence on race that reigns at many American universities was shattered last month at Georgetown University Law Center. When Timothy Maguire, a third-year white student from New Jersey, wrote an article in the student weekly citing the lower test scores and grade-point averages of accepted black applicants compared to white applicants, he met a barrage of angry indignation at his breach of the peace.

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Black students were outraged, finding their legitimacy at an elite school called to question through what they see as incomplete facts. The article seemed a direct assault on the most sensitive point of perception for black students here:

Can they compete with other students or did they get here through special treatment?

That question is at or near the center of the discomfort between blacks and whites over race at schools and other institutions around the country.

On campuses especially, matters of race have grown more shrill, name calling more frequent. At the extremes, the so-called politically correct argue that racism permeates every scene in daily life, while so-called racists believe it has become a competitive disadvantage to be white and male.

But the extremes paint a cartoon picture.

The Monitor held extensive conversations with students - black and white - at one elite and well-integrated graduate school to seek a picture of how some members of the next generation of opinion and policy leaders thinks and feels about race.

The subject remains difficult to discuss in racially mixed company. But the silence - which has become increasingly tense - is breaking.

White students here acknowledge an undercurrent of resentment, both because they see affirmative action as giving an unfair advantage to minority students and because of the risk of being branded "racist" for discussing it.

"It's kind of a dirty little secret or whisper among white males that if they weren't white males, they'd be at Harvard or something," says Jay Hoover, a white third-year student.

Georgetown University Law Center is the largest law school in the nation, and one of the most prestigious, although it ranks below Harvard University, Yale, and a few other top law schools. Of its 2,000 law students, 11 percent are black. Only historically black Howard University Law School has more black students enrolled this year than Georgetown.

White students, in interviews and as described by faculty members here and elsewhere, show less guilt about the race issue and feel more competition between races than their older brothers and sisters.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, white students were more reluctant to venture views on racial issues that might tag them as racists. The taboo was too strong, liberal orthodoxies too pervasive on campus.

Now, liberal students at Georgetown, struggling to maintain their vision of the moral order against the rise of conservatism in the outside world, sometimes hiss and charge racism and sexism when their classmates raise arguments against affirmative action.

The faculty here, as at most other law schools, is virtually unanimously on their side.

But conservative views, Mr. Maguire's among them, are increasingly emerging. Maguire has received letters of support, he says, from students "terrified to discuss these things openly."

The youngest group of students here was born in 1969, well after the end of legal discrimination in this country.

Few, if any, have ever known racism in its most blatant, virulent forms. Further, some of the black students in these classes went to elite preparatory schools and Ivy League colleges, raising questions among some whites about whether color and disadvantage go together.

"If people are beaten in a race by someone who has played by the same rules, then they can't object to that," but tensions arise when the competition is skewed for race, says a white student who insisted on anonymity for fear of racism charges.