Race sensitive issue at Duquesne Univ.

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When news of the early-morning shooting of five basketball players ripped through the Duquesne University campus, students and administrators -- some of them, at least -- thought about what next to say. And what not to say.

   
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They faced a delicate decision. Some black students, an overwhelming minority at Duquesne, wished for a dialogue about race. Others figured it a nonissue; even its mention, they said, would reroute focus from where it should be -- on the injured players. With new arrests yesterday and charges dropped against one man originally charged, the issue is not going away.

On Sept. 17, following a Black Student Union dance, five players were shot along Academic Walk, one of whom remains hospitalized with bullet fragments in his head. The shooting gave rise to questions that remain.

Should those at Duquesne mention that both the victims and the men charged in the shootings were black? Or that roughly 350 black students (4.1 percent of the student body) attend the private Catholic school, and many felt the subtle tensions created by their small number? Or that some feared that the shooting, linked suddenly to the Black Student Union by mere chance, could advance problems for a minority already concerned with stereotypes?

Duquesne has lived with the questions in the 12 days since the violence.

University President Charles Dougherty, facing more than 1,000 students at an after-dark prayer vigil on Sept. 19, decided to mention race in his speech. "Let us be sure that we do not magnify that harm by hurting each other as we grieve," he said. "I want to be clear and direct with this message. This terrible attack is not about race. Bullets tear human flesh regardless of color. ... We will not tolerate any suggestions or actions based on the assumption that this was a racial incident."

Sophomore Samantha Brooks wished nobody, Dr. Dougherty included, had even mentioned such circumstances. Why acknowledge something that didn't deserve substantiation, she wondered?

"It could have been any race or any dance," said Ms. Brooks, a black student who attended a mostly white high school in Eagleville, Montgomery County. "It's not just the black students who are grieving. It's not just the basketball players. It's the whole community."

Even now, with the most seriously injured player, Sam Ashaolu, again able to speak, Duquesne administrators and student leaders question whether race deserves a role in the discussion. Representatives from the Black Student Union declined to comment for this story. Others who participated admitted their misgivings. A tragedy can work two ways, raising social dividing lines or leveling them. The hard part is figuring what kind of dialogue, if any, creates the desired effect.

In rankings published before the shootings, the Princeton Review listed Duquesne among 10 schools noted for little "race/class interaction."

Several minority students on campus said they understood the rating: black students generally sit at separate tables in dining halls. Most students maintain a homogeneous group of friends. Terrence Jones, a senior from Plum and a football player until last season, recalled sitting in a literature class, taking turns with other students reading aloud from "Huckleberry Finn."

When the n-word came up, he looked around the class. He saw only white faces.

"Yeah, that was awkward," he said.

Rob Tucker, from Queens, N.Y., attended Duquesne knowing the statistics. On the block where he grew up, he could meet six different races just by standing still. At Duquesne, he learned how students would approach him and ask if he played football or basketball, even though he lacked an athlete's build. He pledged the Sigma Nu fraternity, which had one other black student. "Which meant, like, it was one of the most diverse on campus," he joked.

"I was just thinking recently," he said later, "I have to go home soon. I have to go back to my roots, so to speak. Like, nobody here even likes hip-hop or rap. If you go to school here long enough, you feel like you're losing your culture."

Duquesne officials now hope to address the problems. Days after the shooting, Dr. Dougherty met with Rahmon Hart, director of school's Multicultural Affairs office. Dr. Dougherty's message: Any help you need, I'll try to provide it.

Even before the shooting, Mr. Hart planned a full schedule of workshops and training to help diversity at Duquesne. Within the next month, he'll visit residence halls, inviting the whole range -- black students and Asian students and European students -- to share ideas about "building an inclusive community."

But now, Mr. Hart also has revised goals for the Black Student Union.

"That's the goal, to make sure that the Black Student Union remains a strong organization," he said, before pausing. "If not stronger."

History suggests Duquesne's potential as a benchmark for diversity. Chuck Cooper, who in 1950 became the first black player drafted into the NBA, played for the Dukes at a time when opponents sometimes forfeited games in protest of his inclusion.

Four years ago, the Duquesne women's basketball team had a roster loaded with players from Latvia, Bosnia, Ontario, Croatia, Israel and Russia.

History also told Kieron Achara not to hesitate about Duquesne. Mr. Achara, now a junior on the basketball team -- one of only two returning players -- was raised in Scotland. His mother is white. His father is black. While being recruited, he communicated mostly with Charles Cunningham, a black assistant to former head coach Danny Nee.

Mr. Cunningham told Mr. Achara he'd never had any problems with race.

Mr. Achara held some trepidation about race in America -- movies, he said, like "Mississippi Burning" colored his perception -- but he'd been exposed to so many races growing up, he felt assurance he could handle it.

"The Duquesne culture," he calls it now.

He lives in an apartment draped in Scottish flags. He watches the BBC on cable with his roommate. Fellow students ask him questions about cuisine and traditions back home.

"People want to know everything. In a good way," Mr. Achara said. "But a lot of people here don't know anything about different cultures ... To a certain extent, I have noticed it. I feel a lot of people at Duquesne are from Pittsburgh. And they associate with friends from back home. If you're from a suburb 10 minutes away, you'll keep that same group of friends.

"I can even bring this back to sports: sometimes groups should be forced together. Maybe to get people together here there have to be more school events. Not just 'Meet the Greeks,' where there are only Greek students. You could have something like a sporting event to have people all come together, to have it be more like, 'This is Duquesne.' "


Chico Harlan can be reached at aharlan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1227.


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