Virtual Racism at the University of Michigan in the Winter of 1987
[February, 2004. Slightly revised November, 2006]

A little mob had gathered on the steps of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, right in front of the lectern from which Ward Connerly was soon to announce a ballot initiative seeking to outlaw the consideration of race in college admissions in Michigan. The members of the group, supporters of "affirmative action," were told they could not block the view of the speaker. After a bit of token resistance, they stepped down.

Once Mr. Connerly began speaking, the mob began to heckle in earnest. A plump woman of color had worked herself into a great lather of rage against "resegregation." After several warnings, the police escorted her away. Some of her fellow hecklers escorted the police. It took the knot of police and leftists about five minutes to make its way 100 yards or so from one side of the main campus plaza (known as "the diag") to the other.

Michigan's University Record began its coverage of the event, "Affirmative Action foe Ward Connerly is greeted by a crowd mostly made up of opponents to his plan ..."(1) Contrary to the Record, Connerly claimed to be a supporter of "affirmative action," but he meant the old fashioned kind: outreach to people who might not otherwise consider applying. That would increase the number of minorities in the applicant pool.

According to the Record's logic, the University itself was a foe of "affirmative action" as recently as the late '80s. I remember one of the many "diversity sessions" I attended as a University employee where the point was explicitly made: the forms of affirmative action practiced by the University did not involve racial preferences, except in cases where two candidates for a job had equal qualifications. Then the person from the "underrepresented" group would get the position, e.g., the equally qualified African American would get the programming job and the equally qualified male would get the nursing position.

Flashback to the '80s

In the year 1912, in northern Georgia, U.S.A., a white woman was brutally raped and murdered by a group of black men. Subsequently, a mob of white people drove a thousand or so black residents out of the county.

In 1987, Forsyth County was still all white. On Saturday, January 17 of that year, a racially mixed group of about 75-90 individuals staged a "small brotherhood march . . . in honor of the birthday of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.," in the small town of Cumming, which was the county seat.(2) That march was broken up by a rock and bottle throwing group of about 400 counter-demonstrators, lead by Ku Klux Klans-people.

The breakup of that march prompted "the biggest civil rights march the South had seen since the 1960s," which took place the following Saturday. There were 15 to 20 thousand civil rights marchers, a thousand counter-demonstrators and 2000 National Guard and law enforcement personnel.

The following Monday, a group of University of Michigan students who had participated in the big demonstration gave a talk about their experiences.

The next day, a group of about 20 black women were gathered in in a dormitory lounge in Couzens Hall. Some newspaper accounts said they were having a "meeting," one account used the phrase "informal meeting." Some later accounts said that the women were "watching television."

On Monday, February 2, an account of events that took place in the Couzens lounge on Tuesday of the previous week appeared in The Michigan Daily: "One Couzens resident, who was in the lounge at the time, said that three individuals came to use the lounge two different times and were told it would be available later. About an hour later, the note was slipped under the door."(3)

The note, written on "stationery from the Ohio Commerce Department,"(4) declared "open season on porch monkeys" and included other insulting racial epithets.

As far as I know, The Monday Daily article was the first publicized account of the Couzens incident. It focused on a forum, organized by Couzens building director Paul McNaughton, held in Couzens Hall on Sunday where the note (referred to as a "flier" in most news accounts) was discussed. The woman who had been in the lounge at the time of the incident was quoted anonymously. Two (presumably) black women who attended the forum were quoted by name. They were understandably shocked by what they heard.

Two days later, on February 4, a number of racist jokes were broadcast on the student-run radio station WJJX, which transmitted its signals through the electrical wiring system into campus dormitories, reaching a potential audience of about 10,000. "Who are the two most famous black women in history?" one joke began. "Aunt Jemima and mother f-----."(5) Most of the other jokes were even more offensive.

The interesting thing about that broadcast is that it did not immediately lead to any uproar or protest or condemnation. The facts of the broadcast did not become publicly known until two weeks later.

That first week of February didn't seem to offer anything out of the ordinary in terms of left-wing activism. On Wednesday, there was a protest against a campus visit by Edwin Meese, the U.S. Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan. Thursday there was a protest against nuclear testing. On Friday a "rally against hatred," spurred by the Couzens incident, took place on the diag.

On Tuesday of the following week the Michigan Daily printed a signed editorial by a student who resided on the floor of Couzens where the flier incident had occurred. On Thursday, the University Housing Division took out a full page ad in the Daily which condemned the flier incident in highly stilted language. ("It is essential that human rights be a cornerstone of our enterprise, and we will continue to articulate it as such." ". . . diversity is the virtual core of University life." etc.(6)) Also on Thursday, the central administration of the University announced a one million dollar initiative in support of minority affairs and affirmative action. On Friday there was another march against racism.

On Monday, February 16, campus activists formed the United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR), which staged its first protest Wednesday at WJJX, which was located in a cafeteria in the basement of the Michigan Union building. Henry Johnson, U of M's vice president for student services, announced that the DJ would be dismissed from his job and that the station itself would be shut down "until there are assurances that the incident won't be repeated," in the words of a newspaper account.(7) As far as I know, no stories about the WJJX incident had been published prior to the 19th.

On Friday the 20th U of M President Harold T. Shapiro issued a statement condemning the recent "incidents of overt racism." He wrote:

. . . discrimination, harassment, exclusion, abusive or insensitive language, or any other manifestation of bigotry or racism are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Any such acts will be dealt with as serious violations of University policy.
Breathtakingly grandiose demands for perfect virtue are often followed by sweeping measures arguably devised for the achievement of such perfection. Shapiro mentioned the University's $1 million diversity initiative and further announced:
We are taking immediate steps to engage the University community -- students, faculty and staff -- in an intensive dialogue and reaffirmation of the right of every student to explore and develop his or her personal identity and values without being harassed or made to feel uncomfortable because of color, religion, unconventional lifestyles or political beliefs. Other members of the University community must also be able to pursue their interests and obligations in a similar manner.

. . .

We have also developed a University-wide staff training program, aimed at identifying and fostering those attitudes and behaviors which will advance the University's commitment to the value of diversity. The Affirmative Action Office and the Human Resource Development Office will implement this program.

The attitude fostering program was not a new idea. Virginia Nordby, U of M's Director of Affirmative Action, had been working since the fall "to put together a committee that would create racial sensitivity training programs for faculty, staff and students on campus."(8)

One would think that the University had taken all reasonable steps in response to the publicized incidents. If colleges and universities had to turn themselves inside-out every time a student did a stupid, mean-spirited thing, they would be in states of constant turmoil. In the Winter of 1987, the real issue was not redress of grievances (to use a phrase from the 1st Amendment), it was the turmoil itself and the political gains that could extracted or effected when the turmoil was at its highest pitch. The happenings of February were just warm-up exercises for events that took place in March.

Suggestions for a Better Campus

On Wednesday, March 4 about 200 students assembled on the diag and marched to the Administration Building where they met with provost James J. Duderstadt. The tone of that meeting is illustrated in this excerpt from The Ann Arbor News:

About 200 angry students Wednesday gave a top University of Michigan administrator a two-week deadline to take steps to end racism on campus or face increased pressure.

"We are not making any more appeals," said Anthony Henderson, a member of the United Coalition Against Racism. "It is demands we are making."

Packed elbow-to-elbow into U-M President Harold Shapiro's conference room, the student group read in unison a list of 12 demands to James Duderstadt, U-M provost and vice president for academic affairs. Shapiro was out of town Wednesday.

The students gave the administration until the March 19 Board of Regents meeting to announce plans for meeting the demands.

When Duderstadt tried to answer the demands, Henderson interrupted him and called his attempted explanation "administrative gibberish."

"We are tired of this administrative hogwash," Henderson said. "The burden is on you."

If the demands -- including one to establish an autonomous minority affairs office and another to bestow an honorary degree on South African antiapartheid leader Nelson Mandela at the May commencement -- are not met by March 19, Henderson told Duderstadt, "you will see us in a different form."(9)

The University Record, U of M's official newsletter, put a slightly different spin on those events. Here is the final paragraph of their account:
While [UCAR leader Barbara] Ransby spoke of implementing "demands," with or without the help of the administration, UCAR members presented a list of 12 proposals to the University administration (see accompanying box). Following the rally, the speakers and most of the audience walked to the Fleming Building where, as a group, they read the proposals to James J. Duderstadt, vice president for academic affairs and provost. The group asked for a response to the proposals in two weeks.(10)

In the "accompanying box," under the heading "United Coalition Against Racism / Anti-Racist Proposals," were the following

  1. Submit a specific plan to guarantee a substantial increase in black student enrollment.
  2. Establish an Office of Minority Affairs with an autonomous supervisory commission elected by the minority campus community.
  3. Create a Financial Aid Appeals Board to make sure no student is forced out of the University because of economic discrimination.
  4. Establish a mandatory workshop on racism and diversity for all incoming students.
  5. Set up a program of orientation for minority students to meet and talk with already enrolled minority students and faculty to minimize feelings of isolation.
  6. Institute a program of tuition waivers for all underrepresented and economically disadvantaged minority students until the goals for minority enrollment are realized.
  7. Create a Minority Student Lounge and Office in the Michigan Union where minority students can meet in a comfortable and supportive atmosphere on a regular basis.
  8. Establish a required course on diversity and bigotry to be taken by all matriculated students before graduation from the University, with input from the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies.
  9. Full observance of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday including cancellation of classes and the closing of offices.
  10. Honorary degree for South African leader Nelson Mandela at May commencement.
  11. Full, public and immediate investigation of all reported incidents of racial harassment and a mechanism set up to facilitate the ongoing reporting and documentation of such incidents.
  12. The immediate removal of all those involved in incidents of racial harassment from University housing since they have demonstrated their inability to live in an integrated setting.
    [all italics in original]

Legislator Opens Racial Hurtlocker

Thursday the 5th was yet another busy day. State Representative Morris Hood, a Democrat from Detroit, had set up a special meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, which he chaired, in order to hear testimony about racism on campus. By that time, racial issues at U of M had been getting national media attention. "At least 35 members of the media" attended the Hood hearing.(11)

The meeting opened with a 20 minute statement from President Shapiro. Then black students and staff were given an opportunity to testify about their experiences with racism. Finally, Asians, gays, lesbians, etc., had a chance to discuss some of their difficulties. The meeting lasted over four hours.

According to the March 9 issue of The University Record, about 60 students and staff testified:

Most expressed contempt for racist incidents on campus and demanded immediate action to combat the problem.
That passage suggests to me that most of the "testimony" was actually commentary on the two widely publicized incidents.

Also from the Record article:

Everyone who spoke, including several white students, trumpeted the plea for an end to racism on campus. Demands included increased recruitment of minority students and faculty, more financial aid for minority students, and an all-out effort to educate incoming students about the benefits and need for an increasingly diverse University community.
I do not believe that last point. The original UCAR demand was: "Established a mandatory workshop on racism and diversity for all incoming students." Not quite the same thing.

Still more from the Record:

Speakers then testified throughout the afternoon of repeated harassment by white students, faculty and staff. Physical and verbal abuse of minorities are rampant on the Ann Arbor campus, they said, citing incidences of unfair grading policies, unwillingness of University officials to respond to minority complaints of abuse, and covert attempts to decrease financial aid to minority students.

Citing "unfair grading policies" as evidence of "rampant" "Physical and verbal abuse" does not dispel my doubts.

Our final clip from the Record:

Other minority students testified that they were forced to perform better academically than white students if they hoped to receive the same grade, and that many faculty and white students express surprise when minority students submit superior work.
I simply do not believe the first part of that statement. I believe that if a rigorous study were done, the opposite might turn out to be the case.

The only concrete incident mentioned in the Record's account was the WJJX broadcast. The Ann Arbor News offered more specifics, for example:

. . . [one woman], a graduate student in the School of Education, said she is an A student whose dean won't allow her to graduate because he doesn't like her dissertation. She also described an incident in family housing when she said a white male attacked her son and the university solution was to "give the white male a new apartment and evict me."
. . . [one man], a graduate student and the former building director at Couzens Hall where the threat of an "open season" on blacks was made, said such incidents are not new.

. . . [he] said last year someone superimposed his picture on a flyer of three athletes from the University of Minnesota who were accused of rape, and then posted the flyer around the dorm.

The latter incident might have been pure racism. On the other hand, it might have been the work of a self-righteous feminist responding crudely to someone with a reputation for being too forward with women. Virginia Nordby mentioned that several of the speakers at the Hood hearings were "in litigation with the University."(14) I suspect that the woman graduate student mentioned above is one of the litigants. Her complaint, as she describes it, sounds quite a bit more serious than a few jokes on a radio show. Why did the radical activists not focus on her situation? Perhaps her charges would not have held up under scrutiny.

Racial Thermodynamics

In the late '90s three teenagers near my home town hopped a train and were not able to get off until the train stopped in Flint. In the course of their wandering around, they met a group of black males, most of whom were also in their teens. The black teens lured the white teens into an isolated park, where they raped the girl and shot the two boys, killing one of them.

The press downplayed the racial angle, apparently thinking that dwelling on it would simply inflame racial hostilities. Maybe it would have. Maybe the press was right. Maybe that's what we have to do: In our own minds we need to downplay the racial aspects of these crimes when they are brought to our attention.

The process must work both ways, however. I'm sure some legitimate grievances were mentioned during the Hood hearings. Was there enough weight to the totality of grievance to justify large changes in University policy? I still do not think so. The most serious interracial crime at the University of Michigan in the 1980s occurred on April 17, 1981 when Leo Kelly, a black male, shot and killed two fellow students: Edward Siwik of Livonia and Douglas McGreaham of Caspian. Kelly was apparently filled with anti-racist righteousness: In a notebook which had been recovered by police from his room, Kelly had written, "The civil rights movement 1950 to 1964, Brown vs. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. It's all meaningless. This is it."(15) According to the Free Press article, "The last two sentences were underlined three times." In any event, the murders did not lead to a huge orgy of interracial grievance venting. That's fine with me. My objection is to the huge uproar of 1987, all apparently triggered by a crude piece of paper slipped under a door and a series of crude jokes on the radio.

Mid March Climax

The week long climax of the great Winter of '87 uprising began on the evening of March 17 at a meeting of the Michigan Student Assembly, where several students argued for the establishment of "a mandatory class on racism and ethnic diversity" with unassailable logic:

MSA member Deborah Schlussel said she did not need to take a class on racism to understand the concerns of black students. The sharp response to her remark led to an unusually heated exchange at the meeting.

"I think that everyone needs to take a class on race relations," [MSA member Lannis] Hall told Schlussel.

Added MSA member Jen Heitman: "The people who think they don't need a class are the people who need to take one."

"Are you implying that I am a racist?" Schlussel asked.

The exchange was interrupted by another MSA member, Steve Herz, who said such feelings are the reason dealing with the problem of racism on campus is difficult.(16)

Wednesday, the 18th, saw the emergence of a new player in the radical racial politics game: Black Action Movement III. The first BAM was the group that threw the whole campus into turmoil in 1970. BAM I, which furthered its cause with stunts such as disrupting the annual honors convocation with tear gas bombs,(17) extracted a promise from the University to raise black enrollment to 10 percent. The University's failure to reach that figure was one of the points often brought up during the '87 uprising. Two of the demands made during the "BAM II" initiative in 1975 were "That the Black United Front be given control of 25 percent of the University's budget" and "That all grades of less than 'A' for black students be 'neutralized' until the enrollment and 1975 faculty demands are met." [ The Michigan Daily, February 19, 1975, p. 8] The University did not agree to them.

Wednesday's festivities began with a rally on the Diag, in the course of which were uttered fulminations such as, "It is really like a war and in every war there is a common enemy. We are embattled folks. This is not joke."(18) The non-humorous ambiance of the event was reinforced by a number of protesters who carried signs featuring photos of Malcolm X with an assault rifle in his hand and captioned "BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY."(19) According to The Ann Arbor News, "Leaders . . . pledged to shut down the school unless steps are taken to improve conditions for black students on campus."(20) A co-organizer of the rally said, "We want to let the university know that we're fed up with its inaction. We're mad as hell and we're not taking it anymore."(21) According to The Detroit News, "The students said they are giving Shapiro until Monday to act."(22)

After the rally, the protesters marched to the Michigan Union, which they "blockaded" for an hour, although, according to The Ann Arbor News, "The demonstration was orderly and there was no physical violence used to prevent people from entering the union . . ."

Around 3:30 in the afternoon of the following day, which happened to be the 17th anniversary of the beginning of the BAM strike of 1970, a group of UCAR members entered the University's Fleming Administration Building and began a sit-in. There were security people present and the elevator and stairways were locked, but restrooms and a conference room on the ground floor were unlocked so that the protesters could be comfortable.(23) "Generally, as the night went on, the atmosphere became more festive," according to the Detroit Free Press.(24) Around 8 in the evening, the protesters sent out for pizza.(25)

BAM III was also having a busy day. According to the Detroit Free Press:

During Thursday's occupation, the regents were holding their regularly scheduled meeting several blocks away in the Michigan League building. They had moved their meeting place from the administration building, they said, to accommodate what they expected to be crowds of students at the meeting.

It was during that meeting that the regents voted to award an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela.

The meeting broke up around 5:15 p.m. when a member of Black Action Movement III refused to yield the microphone. He had asked U-M President Harold Shapiro to meet with the group Tuesday to discuss its demands, but Shapiro declined to promise to meet.(26)

The Ann Arbor News gave a somewhat variant account:
The University of Michigan Regents Thursday abruptly adjourned their meeting after a tense confrontation with two leaders of a black student group who demanded to meet with university officials by next week.

One of the leaders became angry when he said he saw a regent snicker while he was speaking.

"This is exactly the kind of thing that occurs at this university that we are trying to stop," said John Simpson, a leader of a newly formed group called the Black Action Movement III (BAM).

I admire Mr. Simpson for his candor. I, too, threatened to shut down the campus once when someone snickered at me, but, alas, my wild militancy only intensified the snickering.

Circle of Hatred

The occupiers of the Administration Building were up early Friday morning. They left the building and by 6:00 a.m. they had chained the doors shut. Then they linked arms and blockaded the building, preventing staff from getting to their offices. Some staff, however, gained access to their workplaces through the university's system of steam and utility tunnels, so the sit-in/blockade was called off. Here is an account of what happened next from The Ann Arbor News:

After leaving the Fleming Administration Building this morning, the students marched to the upstairs ballroom of the Michigan League at about 9:50 a.m. where the regents were meeting.

When the students asked to be heard, the eight regents and U-M President Harold T. Shapiro grabbed their coats and briefcases and left the room immediately.

The protesters followed them, chanting: "Our people united shall never be defeated."

Shapiro and the regents walked across campus to the Fleming Administration Building, followed by the chanting demonstrators. When the students realized where the regents were going, they raced ahead and re-blocked the entranceways to the building. Several regents got inside before the students reached the doors.

The remaining regents remained outside, where they were surrounded by students. Barbara Ransby, one of the UCAR leaders, told the regents she wanted a meeting with Shapiro to answer the demands.

Shapiro had disappeared by then, but U-M Vice President for Government Relations Richard Kennedy agreed to a meeting this afternoon.(27)

The next day's Detroit Free Press mentioned the "tunnel ruse" and gave this account of subsequent events:
The students dispersed peacefully after having occupied the building for 18 hours. Students later forced Shapiro to adjourn the regularly scheduled meeting of the Board of Regents at the Michigan League when they occupied the regents' chairs while the regents were tending to business elsewhere in the room.

Then, as the regents left the Michigan League and headed across campus to the administration building, a column of more than 100 chanting students followed Regent Sarah Goddard Power and Richard Kennedy, vice-president for government relations.

The students chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, racism has got to go," and demanded that Power and Kennedy get the administration to meet immediately with them.

Shapiro agreed to meet with the students at the Michigan Union but refused demands that he declare a state of emergency and join the regents in taking immediate action.(28)

In an article in the June, 1987 issue of Detroit Monthly, senior editor Marny Rich wrote:
As the regents left the Michigan League and headed across the campus to the administration building, a column of more than a hundred chanting students surrounded Sarah and Vice President Kennedy so that they were unable to move. The students were chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho, racism has got to go!" and demanded they arrange a meeting with Shapiro. Sarah promised that someone would meet with them within two hours.(29)

Regardless of who agreed to the meeting, two or three hundred students showed up for it, which was "confrontational" according to The Flint Journal. In the accompanying photo, we see President Shapiro and Regent Nellie Varner seated at a table, with three protesters standing close behind.(30) According to the Detroit Free Press, Shapiro "appeared nervous at times, with his voice cracking."(31) John Simpson of BAM III, however, was in good form, having apparently recovered from being snickered at the day before:

"Maybe it's time to turn the conditions around on you . . . Maybe it's time for your children to be scared to walk to class. Maybe it is time for you to be scared to walk to work.

"It's time for action. Either you're going to act or we're going to act. If it comes to us, it will be a lot more direct and a lot more harsh."(32)

After a "private discussion with leaders of the organizations"(33) Shapiro agreed to "discuss the problems with BAM representatives in a closed session at 7 a.m. Monday."(34)

Jackson Ex Machina

The protesters held a Sunday evening press conference where they asked for help and support from prominent black individuals all over America.(35) Later that evening, the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Ann Arbor for meetings with BAM and UCAR members and black U of M faculty members.(36)

Monday morning Jackson met again with students, then he met with some local ministers. He had a short, private meeting with Shapiro, then a five hour meeting with Shapiro and a group of students, faculty and administrators.(37) Shapiro's scheduled meeting with BAM had been called off.(38) Shortly before 5:00 p.m. Shapiro and Jackson appeared at a standing room only rally at Hill Auditorium and announced, to the great jubilation of the 4200 mostly white people attending the rally, that agreements had been reached. Shapiro said, "The single most important thing we have agreed on is that it is in the interest of the university to increase the representation of blacks, proportionate to their numbers in the population."(39)

The University Record came out with a special edition on March 25. According to the lead article:

After 24 hours of intense negotiations, President Harold T. Shapiro, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, University administrators and representatives of two student anti-racism groups late Monday afternoon announced a plan of action to remedy racial inequities at U-M.

The six-point plan is designed to achieve representation of blacks throughout the University "proportionate to their numbers in the population," and to hold each area of the University accountable for meeting affirmative action timetables and goals within individual units. It also provides for the creation of a new vice provost position with responsibility for minority affairs, including recruitment and retention of students and faculty.(40)

I wish to juxtapose the above with a statement by current University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman in an address made on February 17, 2003 to the American Council on Education:
Our arguments begin with Bakke. Here's what that decision said: quotas and set asides are illegal, but diversity in the college classroom is so compelling that race may indeed be considered as one of many factors in a competitive review process. Our briefs lay out the facts about the University of Michigan's policies at both at the undergraduate school and at the law school, and demonstrate that those policies comply with the guidelines provided by the Supreme Court in 1978:
The motive of the "six-point plan" described in the University's official publication sounds like a "numerical target" to me. The 10 percent figure agreed to in 1970 also strikes me as numerical. Ms. Coleman should spend more time acquainting herself with the history of the institution she is paid over half a million dollars per year to be the president of.

The University also agreed that the word "Black" would be capitalized in University publications whenever it referred to Black people. I adhere to this convention in my own writing, depending on context and my mood. Sometimes I capitalize White.

Another part of "six-point plan" was:

A permanent and autonomous budget will be provided to the Black Student Union (BSU), initially at a minimum level of $35,000 per year, with appropriate increases over time to accomplish BSU's mission.(41)
"The money will be used primarily for the group to hold cultural and educational events on campus," according to an The Ann Arbor News article.(42)

I attended several BSU-sponsored events. They brought Kwame Ture, formerly known as Stokley Carmichael, to campus in February of '88 and February of '89. Ture spoke of bloodshed and revolution and "pan Africanism" which was his idea that all Africa should be united under "scientific socialism."

I did find his talks educational. Any political activist, in my most humble opinion, needs to be open to the possibility of learning from other activists of wildly diverse perspectives. Even variously hued conservatives could learn something from Ture's emphasis on the importance of organizing.

In any case, other agreements were made and Monday night Jackson was on a plane to somewhere else.


Tuesday morning, Regent Sarah Goddard Power, who had devoted her life to liberal causes such as women's rights and affirmative action, fell to her death from the eighth floor of the Burton Memorial Tower. She had been suffering from physical problems and from depression and was under the care of one of the University's top psychiatrists.

There is inevitably a great deal of mystery connected with the suicide of a person who is wealthy, influential and "admirably schooled in every grace," to borrow the words of poet E.A. Robinson, but I believe that the ugly, confrontational character of the "anti-racist" activism that had taken over the campus may have been a factor in the course of events that ended with her demise on the pavement at the base of the University of Michigan's most famous landmark.

Politics is hard business. Sometimes it is necessary to maintain a continuous antagonistic focus on a deserving target. Sarah Power did not deserve to be the object of such tactics from people who should have been her friends.

On April 9 there was yet another demonstration triggered by a racist flier incident. In an article from The Ann Arbor News Barbara Ransby is quoted: "We cannot rest because racism is continuing, despite the six-point plan the administration gave us to keep us quiet."(43) And so the struggle continued.

Virtual Reality

Some of the "racism" brought to light in the Winter of '87 seems to have existed primarily in the imaginations of those who were complaining about it. One person is quoted in a Detroit News article:

". . . I feel the effects of racism everyday. I can't help but feel that many white students look at the blacks and think to themselves, 'You're here because you skated past the admissions requirements and you're really not qualified to be here.'

"I think, given the intense competition among students, that you have to have a whipping boy, and that's what blacks have become."(44)

Similar remarks quoted in The University Record:

"I've been personally offended by a lot of things that have happened. It's not always tangible, but you pick up feelings like some people think you don't belong here. Being different doesn't mean you're not equal."(45)

We also hear the telepathy motif in these remarks of visiting scholar Harvey T. Slaughter:

"The average student thinks minority students are only here on special programs and can't quite cut it in a regular classroom."(46)
I almost agree with what Mr. Slaughter thinks the average student thinks. I think about a third of the Black students at U of M would be there without any "special programs" at all and do quite well in "regular" classrooms. I think the bottom third, in terms of academic qualifications and skills, can succeed at U of M only with "special programs" and curricular segregation, i.e., they major in Black Studies, where the grading is easy. As to the middle third, I don't know.

Another thing I don't know is whether or not the average white student projects the low levels of qualification and performance from that bottom third onto all of the Black students at the university. But if you demand (in effect, if not directly) that underqualified individuals be admitted, then you really can't cite your feelings that others might be placing you into that category as evidence of "racism." Demanding that more underqualified individuals be admitted is just hair of the racist dog.

Fellowship of the Tape

The racist broadcast on WJJX may have been a deliberate attempt to increase the intensity of anti-racist activism on campus by providing another motivating incident. The WJJX station manager, student Jim Lamb, did not even know about the broadcast until almost two weeks after it had aired. "...I attempt to monitor what goes on, listening to tapes, but Ted [the DJ] did not submit a tape of this particular show, and it was an oversight on my part. ..." Lamb told a reporter.(47) However, there was a tape "which was made at the time of the broadcast by a listener"(48) which was played during the February 18 demonstration.

About two weeks after the broadcast had been publicized, the D.J., Ted Sevransky from Fair Lawn, New Jersey, sent a letter to The Michigan Daily in which he profusely apologized for his broadcast:

"I recognize now that it was my poor judgment and poor taste alone that were to blame for this offensive incident. I deeply regret not hanging up ... on callers when they began their racial slurs. I should not have become a party to their racism by encouraging them.


"I claim responsibility for my actions and regret that they have exacerbated the serious problem of racism that exists on campus and in society. The comments that were made on the show offended many people -- they should have offended everyone."(49)

Around the end of March, in the week of Jesse Jackson's visit and Sarah Power's fall from the Burton tower, one of the callers confessed and apologized. He was an Hispanic student from Florida! Interestingly, he claimed that he was "still friends with Sevransky."(50)

So. There was no tape at the studio, but "a listener" shows up with a tape two weeks after the broadcast. The DJ issues a solemnly anti-racist apology, and now we learn that he might have been "friends" with one of the callers. There are many possible explanations that will fit these little facts. That people were working together to create outrage which was then exploited for political purposes is only one, but I think there is enough evidence to at least entertain it as a suspicion.

Open Season on Reason

I have similar reservations about the "racist flier" incident. First, let me quibble over the meaning of a word. A "flier" is a piece of paper on which advertising or a political message has been mechanically printed. If I write "all philosophy majors are quibbling dweebs" on a piece of paper and slide it under the door of the Philosophy Lounge, would that piece of paper be called an "anti-philosophy flier?" Or would it be called a "note?"

My hunch, Watson, is that the "flier" was indeed a "flier." Remember, it was "written on stationary from the Ohio Department of Commerce." Perhaps the paper upon which racist text was written was originally tourist information about hunting seasons in Ohio that someone picked up at a rest stop in Ohio, perhaps on the way back from a visit to Forsyth County, Georgia.

Most dormitories have large, central lounges, such as Markley Hall's famous Angela Davis Lounge, named after the Black Communist. They also have smaller lounges on each floor. Try to visualize this: You've had a long day, your roommate is grumpy, multidimensional calculus is giving you a headache. What to do? Watch TV for a while!

You stumble down the hall and open the lounge door and find the room occupied by . . . Huh? Twenty Black women? Where did they all come from? Not all from this floor, but . . . Anyway. You, mild mannered, well adjusted citizen that you are, head for the elevator. You push the button for a different floor and experience a few fleeting thoughts about Einstein's Theory of General Relativity and then you wonder about the hotheaded, maladjusted computer geek who lives on your floor. Will he say something rude to the women watching TV? Sure hope not! Could cause a lot of trouble. Oh, the gravity!

The occupiers of the lounge may have hoped for something to develop along the lines of my little narrative. But the anticipated angry racist idiot never shows up, so switch to plan two: the flier!

This is all speculation, of course, but it's worth remembering that members of the Free South Africa Coordinating Committee had recently gotten back from their trip and had given a talk about their experiences on the night before the lounge incident. And then the first broad release of the contents of the flier was on Sunday, February 1, the beginning of Black History Month.

I don't claim to have proven anything here. I'm just sharing reasons for my suspicions. Another reason is that I encountered only one media interview with a women who was in the lounge at the time of the incident. That was the woman quoted anonymously in the February 2 Michigan Daily article. In less than two months, the incident morphed from an instance of deplorable unpleasantness into a big national story and finally into History in the Making. I would think any journalist would eagerly seek an interview with any of the women who were There When It All Started.

Georgia Still On My Mind

I believe the small Forsyth County "brotherhood march" was intended to provoke public expressions of hostility from Klan types, etc. I'm absolutely not justifying the actions of the counter-demonstrators. I'm just saying that their presence and their hostile attitudes were predictable and necessary to set the stage for the large demonstration the following week.

That second demonstration might have been a spontaneous response to the disruption of the first, but I tend to think it was planned in advance. Getting 20,000 people from all over America to show up for a march is an impressive accomplishment. It can be done on short notice, in my humble opinion, only when people and organizations are prepared ahead of time to do such a thing.

While sorting through news clips for this article, I ran across the following:

Charging that racist incidents are rising at the University of Michigan, black student leaders demanded Wednesday that the U-M administration take steps to improve the racial climate on campus.

The demands, which students plan to repeat today at the U-M Board of Regents meeting, include shutting down the campus on the federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, awarding an honorary degree to jailed South African apartheid foe Nelson Mandela and increasing financial aid for minority students.(51)

That was from November, 1986.

Media accounts of the Winter of 87 at Michigan tend to portray the activism as a response to the two highly publicized racist incidents. Perhaps the incidents were the products of activism.

Why We Can't Ever Do Enough

Even if the radio and flier incidents turn out to have been staged, we still might imagine that perhaps the University was paying way too little attention to the needs of Black students. That such was not the case is rather amusingly illustrated by an article by Karen Schneider that appeared in the Detroit Free Press on Sunday, March 22, the day before Jesse Jackson's triumphant afternoon rally in Hill Auditorium. A sidebar to the article begins:
Some of University of Michigan President Harold Shapiro's initiatives to increase the number of minority students on campus include:

The Michigan Achievement Awards, a merit scholarship program for minority students, begun in 1983. That year, U-M handed out $33,000 in merit awards to 32 students. This year, it gave out $450,000 in awards to 267 students. Of the $24.2 million in financial aid given to students this year, $7.7 million, or nearly 32 percent, went to minorities.(52)

Wow. The "minority" 12.7 percent of the student population got 32 percent of the financial aid. I suspect that the Black 5.3 percent was getting a really good chunk of the 32 percent. Well, maybe it wasn't enough, who knows.

217 Black students had been admitted to the U of M freshman class in 1983. In 1986 that number had gone up to 335. The Free Press article also mentioned that "The law and medical schools posted record black enrollments this year, 7.5 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively." These numbers indicate an institution that was very concerned with levels of Black enrollment.

Various programs were in place to help Black students succeed in their studies. There was "an intensive academic and study skills program in the summer before the freshman year" and "intensive classes, known as 'power sections'" which were "held for students having trouble in introductory courses . . ." The power sections were open to all, but were "filled mostly with minorities."

The University also had tutoring and counseling programs for minorities. These had a combined budget of $500,000 in 86-87.

So Black students had summer programs, intensive classes, tutoring, counseling, and a major chunk of of the financial aid dispersed by the University. The University had a Center for Afro-American and African Studies, although its director, Lemuel Johnson, was quoted on February 22, 1987: "The university system is, as a whole, indifferent or hostile or even actively malignant to minority experiences."(53) Two of the regents were Black people who attended the University during BAM I in 1970.(54)

But it wasn't enough. I think the reason is contained in Schneider's article. Consider:

"If I judge Shapiro (and his administrators) by what they do, not by what they say, then he is not committed," said Eunice Royster, director of U-M's comprehensive studies/opportunity program, a tutorial and counseling service for minorities.

The graduation rates and numbers of black students and faculty "tell you that," Royster said last week. "Ultimately the commitment isn't there, because the results aren't there."

I love it when people get quoted in the paper blaming their bosses for their own failures. The article includes more choice Roysterisms:
"Until we make the academic performance of black students a No. 1 priority, the numbers (of blacks who graduate) are going to continue to plummet."

. . .

Noting that black and Hispanic students often average one grade below their white classmates, Royster added, "No one says to the math department or the chemistry department, why is that, and what is your strategy for causing that to be different? That is the epitome of racism."

Ms. Royster's comments are the epitome of stupidity. If you take the students who tend to have the most difficulties and provide them with automatic excuses for failure, is it really surprising that they tend to fail? Ms. Royster (now Eunice Royster Harper), by the way, is currently U of M's Vice President for Student Affairs.

"The World of All of Us"(55)

Early in January, 2004, a group called the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative announced a campaign to gather signatures in order to place before the voters "a proposal to amend the constitution to prohibit the University of Michigan and other state universities, the state, and all other state entities from discriminating or granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin." This was the initiative Ward Connerly had talked about in the fall.

I'm sure there are parallel universes somewhere where I am opposing the MCRI. In those universes, "affirmative action" is a limited program, forwarded by people of good will in order to acknowledge certain historical and social realities and to make a modest contribution to social progress. In those universes, affirmative action programs evolve along with other social programs as public debate and discussion become informed by actual experience. They are not coercively established through threats, intimidation, turmoil, demands or "negotiations." No one lies about the reasons for them. They are not regarded as part of some generalized mechanism for social transformation.

In the universe we actually live in there is indeed a transformational agenda behind all of the talk about "diversity." Two Detroit area attorneys have filed a lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court to halt the MCRI petition drive. One of them, Godfrey Dillard, is quoted in The Detroit News:

"The Supreme Court said the state is allowed to pursue preferences to create a diverse society."(56)

I don't believe the Supreme Court made that statement, although perhaps a few of its members dropped hints about such an ultimate agenda. With the MCRI, we citizens of Michigan have a chance to say "yes" to nondiscrimination, "yes" to equal opportunity, and "yes" to the concept of Civil Rights. And, to some powerful institutions of our state that are pursuing "preferences to create a diverse society," we can say, "No, we will not allow you to do that."

Silence of the Lions

On the south side of the walkway between central campus and a major dormitory area is the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building. Guarding its entrance are two large terrazzo lions.(57) The legend is that they roar whenever a virgin walks by.

Since being placed on their plinths in 1940, they have, of course, seen the sons and daughters of the wealthy, the prominent, the privileged. They've seen farm kids and small town kids who happened to have some exceptional talent for poetry or engineering or abstract reasoning. They've seen war veterans attack their studies as vigorously as they attacked the beaches of Normandy or Guadalcanal. They've seen the University use standardized tests to help find highly qualified students who might have been overlooked by subjective approaches to admissions.

Since the winter of 1987, they've seen the university implement "diversity training" for staff and "ethnic studies" requirements for students. They've seen the University give high praise to meretricious "research" that "proves" the great benefits of such courses. They've seen the University set up one set of admissions criteria for white applicants and a separate set of criteria for minorities. They've seen the University replace that obviously illegal "grid" system with a "point" system which was ultimately stricken down by the Supreme Court of the U.S.A. They've seen the University unveil yet another admissions system -- one that seems designed to reward conformity of thought and loyalty to authority, all under the banner of "diversity." They've seen "diversity" itself evolve from a nice idea to an institutional policy to a "compelling government interest" to the one supreme institutional purpose.

Some members of the university community do indeed regard themselves as architects of a new dispensation, as shapers of a new world. In their arrogance they have put the University of Michigan, once an alma mater, into the service of dishonesty and greed. Now they attempt to wreak their transformational fantasies on a distracted population while the lions, silent, avert their eyes from the tragic tower and hear the loud echoes of a fallen innocence.


  1. The University Record, July 21, 2003, page 6.
  2. Detroit Free Press, Jan. 25, 1987, page 1A, State Edition
  3. The Michigan Daily, Feb. 2, 1987
  4. The Detroit News, Feb. 22, 1987, p. 1A
  5. The Ann Arbor News, Feb. 19, 1987, p. A4
  6. The Michigan Daily, Feb. 12, 1987, p. 10
  7. Ann Arbor News, Feb. 19, 1987, p. A1
  8. The Ann Arbor News, Mar. 15, 1987, p. A10
  9. The Ann Arbor News, Mar. 5, 1987, p. A1
  10. The University Record, Mar. 9, 1987, p. 5
  11. The Michigan Daily, Mar. 6, 1987, p. 5
  12. The University Record, Mar. 9, 1987, p. 1
  13. The Ann Arbor News, Mar. 6, 1987, p. A4
  14. The University Record, Mar. 9, 1987, p. 1
  15. Detroit Free Press, May 27, 1982, p. 9A
  16. The Flint Journal, March 18, 1987, p. C4
  17. Thomas G. Kuzma, letter to Michigan Today, June, 1990, page 11
  18. The Ann Arbor News, March 19, 1987, p. A1
  19. The Ann Arbor News, March 19, 1987, p. E12
  20. The Ann Arbor News, March 19, 1987, p. A1
  21. The Detroit News, March 19, 1987, p. 6A
  22. ibid.
  23. Detroit Free Press, March 20, 1987, p. 18A
  24. ibid.
  25. The Ann Arbor News, March 20, 1987, p. A2
  26. Detroit Free Press, March 20, 1987, p. 18A
  27. The Ann Arbor News, March 20, 1987, p. A4
  28. Detroit Free Press, March 21, 1987, p. 1A
  29. Marney Rich, "A Private Life," Detroit Monthly, June, 1987, p. 164
  30. The Flint Journal, March 21, 1987, p. A1
  31. Detroit Free Press, March 21, 1987, p. 1A
  32. The Flint Journal, March 21, 1987, p. A1
  33. The Flint Journal, March 21, 1987, p. A1
  34. The Detroit News, March 21, 1987, p. 1A
  35. The Detroit News, March 23, 1987, p. 1B
  36. The Ann Arbor News, March 23, 1987, p. A11
  37. Detroit Free Press, March 29, 1987, p. 5B
  38. The Ann Arbor News, March 23, 1987, p. A1
  39. The Ann Arbor News, March 24, 1987, p. A1
  40. The University Record, Special Edition, March 25, 1987, p. 1
  41. The University Record, Special Edition, March 25, 1987, p. 1
  42. The Ann Arbor News, March 24, 1987, p. A4
  43. The Ann Arbor News, April 10, 1987, p. A1
  44. The Detroit News, Feb. 22, 1987, p. 18A
  45. The University Record, March 23, 1987, p. 12
  46. The Ann Arbor News, March 6, 1987, p. A4
  47. Detroit Free Press, February 20, 1987, p. 15A
  48. The Ann Arbor News, February 19, 1987, p. A4
  49. Detroit Free Press, March 4, 1987, p. 4A
  50. The Ann Arbor News, March 26, 1987, p. A10
  51. Karen Schneider, "Racist incidents are up, U-M black leaders charge," Detroit Free Press, November 20, 1986, p. 11A
  52. Karen Schneider, "U-M chief under fire for decrease in blacks" Detroit Free Press, March 22, 1987, sidebar on p. 18A
  53. Karen Schneider, "Racist U-M broadcast hints at wider trouble in campus relations" Detroit Free Press, February 22, 1987, p. 1A
  54. The Flint Journal, March 21, 1987, page A13
  55. William Wordsworth, "French Revolution / As it appeared to enthusiasts at its commencement"
  56. The Detroit News, January 27, 2004, p. 1C
  57. Carelton Watson Angell, "Two Black Lions Now Guard Entrance," Michigan Alumnus, August 17, 1940, pp. 543-544. The reference to that article was found in: Julie Truettner, "Bibliography for Sculpture Webpage," 2002,

Copyright © 2004   You may make as many paper copies of this essay as you wish, as long you do not distribute them for charge. You may also save electronic copies of this essay on your hard drive for your personal use.

The author of this article graduated from the University of Michigan in 1977.


Addendum, November 14, 2006:

We are back to where we started. On November 7, 2006, the voters of the State of Michigan passed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative by a large margin. The next day, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman gave a slightly deranged speech from the same steps of the Hatcher Library upon which Ward Connerly stood when he announced the initiative back in '03. Essentially, Coleman declared that she would do everything within her power to ignore the expressed will of the voters.

The struggle continues.


Share on Twitter:

HTML type link:
<a href="">Virtual Racism at the University of Michigan in the Winter of 1987</a>

Contact Information

[Go to main index page]

Read Manifesto for the Peoples of the Third Millennium