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Clash of the Tartans

One year after The Natrat incident at CMU, black-white relations may not have changed

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On Feb. 17, two white, uniformed Carnegie Mellon University police officers made their way down the aisle of a CMU lecture hall toward two uniformed New Black Panther officers, one of whom was carrying a billy club. The Panthers were arguing with two white students armed only with camera, notebook and pen: Editor-in-Chief J. T. Trollman and photographer Alex Meseguer of The Tartan, CMU's weekly student newspaper. They were trying to cover a talk by New Black Panther national Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz, titled "Black History and the Role and Responsibility of the Black Community."

 

Two weeks earlier, The Tartan had run a prominent page-one photo of CMU student Kierra Wright and history department Chair Joseph Trotter, both instrumental in organizing Shabazz's visit. Wright says the photo showed them looking "angry and threatening."

 

That photo, says Trollman "perhaps had something to do with why we were asked to leave the Shabazz event. That, on top of the natural tension already there between certain black students and The Tartan."

Such tensions exploded a year ago, when The Tartan's April Fools' Day edition, The Natrat, included a cartoon of a goat telling a mouse that he "hit a nigger on his bike" while driving. The mouse replied, "Only one?"

 

Black students called for Tartan staffers to be fired or jailed. Meseguer, then the editor, pulled the issue and left his post. 

 

Following months of reprimands from CMU administration and plenty of bad press from as far away as New Zealand, The Tartan replaced most of the editorial staff, changing its organizational structure and recruited new black writers.

 

For Shabazz's CMU visit, Tartan staffers were out to prove that things had changed. But the disputed photo and the expulsion of staffers from Shabazz's lecture seemed only to prove how much things hadn't changed.

 

Unlike the relatively independent Pitt News down the street at the University of Pittsburgh, The Tartan is financed by the university. None of the 60 students on the editorial staff is paid, nor do they receive college credit. There is no journalism program at CMU, just two journalism classes.

 

Trollman, a junior, says his work as editor-in-chief takes 45 hours a week. Last year, editor-in-chief Meseguer was responsible for everything at the paper, including advertising, marketing and public relations. He cited stress and sleep deprivation as the reasons for the Natrat debacle. This year, The Tartan acquired its first "executive officer," Bradford Yankiver, to handle the business affairs and PR.

 

Trollman, a photographer last year, says he felt disappointed that he was "taking responsibility for something that I didn't do because [CMU students] chose to lump the entire Tartan paper together for one incident."

 

Meseguer, although he said he did not see the cartoon himself, still takes ultimate responsibility.

 

But if some black students are still unhappy about race relations at CMU, they aren't exactly without cause. Even blacks from outside CMU have scrutinized the university for canceling only half a day's classes for Martin Luther King Day, despite the school's practice of adding MLK-inspired service projects to the holiday. African Americans make up one of the smallest minority groups on campus, with just 286 out of 5,389 total students.

 

"When it comes to general student interaction, it is a little backwards," says Jessica Vaughn, a CMU junior who is black. "A lot of people don't take the time to venture outside of what comes comfortable to them and there are incidents that occur that make students of color feel isolated to a certain degree."

 

"I don't see my reflection in my college textbooks, or the administration or the faculty here," says Kierra Wright. "It has a profound effect on myself and the psyche of my colleagues. Makes us feel like there aren't too many people of color who've made contributions to our society, and that's just not true."

 

That's why it was so important to bring in a speaker like Shabazz, Wright believes, who could motivate black students.

Shabazz's appearance did provoke protests for weeks beforehand, even from black students. "Shabazz's inflammatory lecture hinders constructive dialogue," The Tartan editorialized. CMU Dean of Student Affairs Michael Murphy denounced Shabazz's views.

But whether the Shabazz appearance actually affected racial tension more deeply at CMU still isn't clear. "[Shabazz] came, he said some things, some people got mad, and that was the extent of it," says Vaughn. "None of the [student] organizations really said anything beyond the fact that they were upset."

 

Black CMU Professor Yona Hayes, who teaches creative writing and attended Howard University with Shabazz, says she has sensed the tension among her students. "I'd been feeling all semester that there were tensions and things I couldn't put my finger on, like there was this whole class going on beneath my class," she says. "It was an unspoken thing."

 

In the aftermath of both the Natrat incident and the Shabazz lecture, public forums allowed students, faculty and administrators to vent and address diversity. CMU Associate Director of Media Relations Eric Sloss says the past year's controversy made people talk to each other about race. He calls recent public forums on diversity "great" for continuing the discussion.

 

Vaughn isn't as impressed. "I went to a forum a couple days after the Shabazz lecture and nothing was really addressed, as far as what students should do to make it better, so I don't think it did anything," she says.

 

"They don't feel comfortable in those spaces," says Hayes about the forums, after talking with her students. "They can't be honest in those spaces and it's for the same reason they feel uncomfortable on the campus."

 

Tartan staffers, meanwhile, say the paper will remain an open forum for CMU. The paper now employs an ombudsman, Kristina Wiltsee, responsible for seeking input about the paper from various campus communities. As Wiltsee wrote in her recent editorial: "That the paper has been treading on eggshells for the past year is understood, but at what point will the concerns stop being about how the paper made errors in the past ...? When will we be able to stop talking about the definition of diversity and simply embody it?"

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