The end of the 1980s and early 1990s witnessed a radical downturn on the Brown campus, as national and regional plot lines intersected a range of local factors to reveal significant challenges to progress and change. Alumni remember this period of time as racially charged, ribboned with racist incidents and concerns. The Brown Daily Herald called it [X]. New student movements emerged to confront these challenges – most particularly, the Coalition Against Racism and Homophobia.
Nationally and regionally, by the late 1980s the “war on crime” had accelerated, and the country was lurching to the right after the so-called Reagan revolution. The civil rights consensus that had bound together the political center of the country had crumbled, and white animosity towards civil rights gains was on the rise.
Worrisomely, the Ku Klux Klan had been revived, an early indicator – in hindsight – or the meteoric and consequential rise of right wing white supremacist groups that would define the next several decades. The head of the Klan, James W. Farrands, a New Englander, set out not only to reinvigorate the white supremacist organization, but also to extend its reach into his home turf.
On the Brown campus, this national and regional mood was dramatically revealed in a series of physical confrontations between black and white students.
By Friday, October 20, 1989, things had reached a fever pitch. That weekend – parents weekend at Brown – Funk Night, sponsored by Omega Psi Phi, was cancelled, as authorities cited concerns about the potential for racial violence of some kind.
More disturbingly, the campus seemed to be in the grips of a radicalized crime panic. The BDH routinely painted a picture of roving small gangs of black predators on campus, mugging and assaulting white students. The regular drumbeat of stories about “black males” brought a national storyline – famously a feature of racial profiling and the rise of the carceral state – to Providence. But its sensationalism also stoked fear and panic, and enabled a sense of white grievance against black students, who were routinely confused – by the campus and local police – for these mythic, outsized “black males” who so regularly appeared in the newspapers.
That sense of grievance may have played a role in the flirtation with the establishment of a Ku Klux Klan chapter on campus. Rumors spread that a Klavern was being formed, that a group of white students had appealed to the national organization for protection.
It surely played a role, as well, in the explosion of Douglas Hann from the campus.
Gregorian, an Iranian immigrant who had come to Brown after being denied the Presidency at Penn because of his presumed foreignness, took a strong stance on the Hand case, expelling him for violations of the campus’s recently revised honor code.
Klan rumors – racist graffiti – spring 1989
Mass meeting on the main green
Gregorian faced questions for not intervening when the NAACP asked Art History professor Kermit Champa to not show Birth of a Nation. (Champa cancelled the showing). “Professor Champa was embroiled in a controversy in May 1989, when he decided to show the early classic, yet overtly racist D.W. Griffith film, Birth of a Nation, as part of his curriculum. The president of the Providence chapter of the NAACP denounced the plan to show a racist film, and insisted that a seminar be held after its screening to discuss its racial content.”
“We were not presenting it as a socio-political document; we were presenting it as a piece of filmmaking.” Mr. Champa said. “When the NAACP decided to insist it could not be that, in effect it made it not that.”
Fall of 1989, already several incidents on campus – African American student and her parents, Chinese student. Messaging on the West Andrews dorm.
5 page pamphlet–racism at Brown.
“Coalition Against Racism and Homophobia” – “Notes on the Brown University Conscience” – demands presented to Gregorian in the spring of 1989.
BDH – late September/October drumbeat of fear about attacks by groups of “black males.”
Last spring, the school was rocked by racist graffiti on the walls ofone dormitory and the racial nature of the recent attacks has increased tension on campus.
School officials have urged students to use shuttle buses and student escorts when traveling in and around the university.
Brown President Vartan Gregorian has condemned the attacks but asked students to remain calm and warned them not to take matters into their own hands”.
Put your words here, Matt
New York Times article detailing the expulsion under anti-harassment instated rule in 1989