Thursday, January 25, 2007

Is the "Ghetto Fabulous" Party Theme Racist?

Off-Campus Party Theme Called Racially Insensitive
Law School Plans Session To Deal With `Hurtful' Actions

January 25, 2007
By GRACE E. MERRITT, Courant Staff Writer

WEST HARTFORD -- The interim dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law has scheduled a schoolwide roundtable discussion for today to air concerns raised by a weekend off-campus party in which some law students dressed in hip-hop clothes and toted 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor.

Photos of the "Bullets & Bubbly" party were posted on the popular website, dismaying some students who regarded the party theme as racially insensitive. Photos depicted partygoers wearing do-rags, muscle shirts, hoodies, and necklaces with gold medallions.

The party, attended by several student leaders, seems to reflect a trend toward these kinds of parties among college students nationally; one of the more notorious, a "Ghetto Fabulous" party hosted by University of Texas law students in September, garnered national headlines after photos ended up on the Web.

Interim Dean Kurt Strasser scheduled the roundtable discussion Wednesday after hearing from members of the Black Law Students Association, as well as some faculty and staff members who were upset about the party, which was held in a private home and drew up to 75 people.

Strasser said he hopes the session will bring the law school community together and provide a "teaching moment."

"My basic take on the situation is that if we look at ourselves as a community, some have taken action that is deeply hurtful to other members of the community," he said. "I don't think it was at all intended that way. I think it was an exercise in very poor judgment. I want to spark a discussion where people come to understand what they did has proven to be hurtful."

The Black Law Students Association declined to comment publicly, but held a meeting Wednesday night to discuss the issue.

Michael Nichols, a graduate student member of the UConn board of trustees, attended the party along with several other student leaders. He wore a tuxedo, he said.

"At the time we felt that nothing was wrong or mean-spirited. Since then we have learned that many of our friends and fellow students were hurt. For this I am truly sorry," he said, adding that he hoped the discussion would raise sensitivity to other students' feelings.

UConn law student Greg O'Neil said he was going to go to the party but decided to visit a friend in Boston instead.

"I think they tried to have [the party] be in good taste, and the theme was supposed to be broad, but some people chose to wear costumes that were racially insensitive," O'Neil said.

Ryan Greco, president of the Student Bar Association at the law school, said he was disturbed by the incident.

"A number of students, both white and black, were offended by the party. But it isn't the party that is the real issue. It's the underlying lack of communication between the two cultures," Greco said.

Jeremy R. Paul, who was named the new dean of the law school Wednesday, lamented the incident but expressed confidence in how law school officials are dealing with the controversy.

"Clearly this is an unfortunate incident," Paul said. "I'm very concerned about it."

"I don't think my classmates intended to do harm but significant harm was done to both our community and its members and there has to be some form of accountability for that," said Ben Smilowitz, a UConn law student. "It's also important to learn from this. We knew about these parties happening in Texas and Georgia, but I don't think people realize they're probably just as common in Connecticut."

Strasser hopes the flap also teaches the students a lesson about professionalism and how to present themselves.

"Rightly or wrongly, as lawyers these students will be influential leaders, opinion makers, people who deal with lots of people," he said.

The controversy also underscored the power of the Internet, which made the photos widely available.

"I hope the students will come to realize that pictures that are put on the Internet are likely to be available to potential employers, clients and parents," Strasser said.

He predicted the incident would not tarnish the students' law careers or have any bearing on the bar exam, which includes a good character evaluation.

"This is something I think all of those students would prefer not to have as part of their history. What we have to remember is this is one exercise of bad judgment."

Strasser noted that the school has taken strides toward becoming a more diverse community. The law school was named one of the top 10 best law schools in the country for Hispanic law students by Hispanic Business magazine last year.

In recent months, there have been similar parties at other colleges. Besides the University of Texas bash, a "straight thuggin' party" at a University of Chicago dorm two years ago and invitations to a "Halloween in the Hood" party at Johns Hopkins University sparked campus debates about race relations.

The roundtable at the UConn law school is scheduled to be held at 12:15 p.m. in Starr Hall on the West Hartford law school campus.

"I just hope it leads to a productive conversation," said Kaaryn Gustafson, a black law professor at the school.

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