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.
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.
How widespread white resentment is remains difficult to gauge because most students are silent on the subject. But Joe Rand, who is white, does not see a return to the racism more common before the 1960s that held blacks to be inferior.
A level playing field?
"I don't think you could find anybody here that feels blacks should be treated differently than whites," he says, referring to traditional racial exclusion. "The problem is that they don't believe blacks should be treated differently than whites. The assumption is that there's a level playing field."
Maguire, who wrote the controversial article, grew up in a poor, single-parent family and received full financial aid to get through college. He spent three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa before law school. "No, it's not a level playing field," he says.
But, he adds: "It's pretty apparent that Georgetown gives the same benefit to black students from Harvard and those who went to prestigious private schools before Harvard as to those who went to UDC [the University of the District of Columbia] and to inner-city schools."
To blacks, Maguire's article upset students already tired, as many noted in interviews, of "justifying my presence."
Conan Louis, a black Washington lawyer who graduated from Georgetown five years ago, took the article seriously: "It casts discredit on those students who are there, but make no mistake, it also casts discredit on black alumni - that we aren't Georgetown material but that we're 'black' Georgetown graduates, a special category."
The article, using data Maguire had collected while working in the law school's admissions office this spring, asserted that a survey of student records showed average Law School Admissions Test scores of 43 for whites, compared with 36 for blacks. (Last year's overall national average: 32.8) The average white's grade point average, he wrote, was 3.7, compared with 3.2 for blacks.
Maguire is being charged before a school panel with violating confidentiality in his use of admissions records. No one has challenged the accuracy of his numbers. But many challenge the picture they paint.
The law school claims five factors - LSATs, grades, personal statements, recommendations, and nonschool activities - are used to select a pool of qualified applicants.
Only then are special concerns weighed, such as racial diversity, geographical diversity, religion (Georgetown is a Jesuit institution), and whether a parent is an alumnus.
Mr. Louis argues that black students - reared under different cultural standards with less access to quality schooling - often show their merit better on the more subjective factors than on the hard numbers of the LSAT and GPA.
Once admitted, he notes that fewer than 2 percent of Georgetown law students flunk out each year. Exams are all graded anonymously, by number, so there is no opportunity for special treatment of blacks.
As if to refute stereotypes, the week after the Maguire article appeared, the prestigious annual moot court competition and its counterpart for first-year students were each won by black students.
Much of both competitions are judged blind, by number, and actual courtroom judges choose the winner.
Blacks more assertive
The winner of the main competition, Tanya Holcomb from Queens, N.Y., was infuriated by the Maguire article. "It has devalued my degree and my career."
"I think the African-American students are probably more qualified than other students here because we have to work 110 percent as hard," she says, a sentiment echoed by other black students.
Blacks on campuses nationally have become increasingly assertive in recent years on race and racism.
John Bunzel, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, is completing a two-year study of racial attitudes at Stanford University. There, he says, "The vanguard is clearly in the hands of those looking to race and ethnicity as a basis for self-esteem and identity."
The elite black students here are well aware of some of the alarming numbers about the black community overall - 60 percent of all black children are born out of wedlock, nearly 25 percent of black men are in prison, on probation, or on parole.
Some sense a rolling back of black social gains in the political climate of the past decade - the GOP's hold on the White House and a conservative Supreme Court that has narrowed some civil rights protections.
Troy Duster, director of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of California at Berkeley, has done extensive studies on racial attitudes there. He says he has seen the same black consciousness there and calls it "in some ways, an attempt to recapture some sense from the '60s of a community."
The most active and political organization on the Georgetown campus is the Black Law Student Association (BLSA), which was deeply divided over how to respond to the Maguire article, according to Michael Powell, a black first-year student.
Nevertheless, BLSA formed an aggressive and united public front demanding Maguire's expulsion.
But the division reflects some deeper divergences among blacks. It includes a small but confident group of black voices challenging the orthodoxies that have mobilized black political power since the 1960s.
When Conan Louis enrolled at Georgetown University as an undergraduate in 1969, most of his fellow black students were first-generation college students, and they had a strong sense of black identity. Among those who went into law school, many were most interested in civil-rights law.
Now some of his former classmates have children of their own entering law school. Many of the black Georgetown law students come from upper-middle-class backgrounds. "They weren't raised with this sense of being black like we were in the '60s," says Mr. Louis.
Many still enter law school planning to practice public-interest law in black communities, but their career aspirations increasingly span the same range as white students, says Everett Bellamy, assistant dean at the law school over the past 11 years.
The public voice of blacks here remains assertive, largely unified, and charged with some of the moral indignation of the civil-rights era.
But more variations are becoming apparent.
Mr. Powell, winner of the moot court competition this year for first-year students, considers himself a conservative Republican. His father, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell, is an icon of black achievement in a white-dominated power structure.
"My own view is that the best way to advance the black cause is to make law reviews, get good grades, and win competitions. Then dare anyone to tell me I'm not qualified to be here," he says. "That's what my father tells me, and I believe that very deeply."
An emerging divide, some blacks say, is over a fundamental point: Do whites owe blacks a special responsibility?
"That's the big split," says Michael Steele, a black student near graduation, who rejects the notion of a special white responsibility to blacks. "We don't need racism as a crutch," he says. "A lot of my black friends would throw stones at me for saying that."
Mr. Bellamy, who is black, says he sees this attitude growing more among a somewhat older group, practicing attorneys in their 30s and 40s. This view is to remain vigilant about discrimination, but "Enough is enough, let's not waste time blaming white people. Let's take our destiny in our own hands."
"That's growing," says Powell. "But there's also a growing counter-reaction. A lot of blacks are very threatened by it [the view Bellamy describes] because it appeals to the white power elite intellectually."
As liberal etiquette is breached on the subject of race, some blacks are skeptical that the emerging candor is constructive.
"I personally was a little more comfortable when people weren't talking," says Ms. Holcomb, since she has been constantly aware of racial tensions anyway.
Louis agrees: "From where I sit, we can't afford that candor."