Racial hatred that surfaced at Gonzaga University last spring is not being forgotten this fall.
Student and campus leaders are trying to avoid a repeat of the harassment against four black law students last April.
Anger and embarrassment over the episode are prompting GU to take action, but those familiar with racial problems say there is a troubling undercurrent of bigotry in Spokane.
“I think Spokane is a great community, but I think there’s a racial issue of some significance that needs addressing,” said John Clute, dean of the law school.
President Bernard Coughlin recently formed a 26-member task force on racial equality to increase cultural understanding on campus.
Faculty leaders said they want minorities to feel welcome at Gonzaga. Forums and speeches on cultural diversity are planned.
“Racial bigotry is contrary to the university’s ideals, and morally and ethically unacceptable; moreover, malicious harassment is illegal,” Coughlin said in a memo setting up the task force.
The task force is supposed to submit recommendations to Coughlin and the board of trustees by February.
Last year, the law school had four blacks out of an enrollment of about 550.
Just before final exams, those four students received two racist letters, including one that used a racial epithet and said none of the blacks “will be graduating from this law school.”
The incidents sent the campus into an uproar. Rallies supporting the minorities were held, and the administration promised to get to the bottom of the problem. The FBI and city police investigated.
No one was identified as the perpetrator, although officials suspect the letter writer was a member of the first-year law class.
Two of the black students left the school, one because of low grades. A third black student threatened to quit Gonzaga, but has returned for classes this fall.
The law school’s only black professor said he is leaving at the end of the current school year.
Assistant Professor William Hanson said he is not being driven from Spokane because of racism, although he is troubled by the community’s lack of diversity.
He said his wife’s teaching career is being hampered because there are not enough college teaching positions available to her here.
Hanson is serving on the race task force.
Former black law student Andrew B. Smith Jr. said he suffered racist insults throughout his year at GU.
Stress from the incidents hurt his performance, and he ended the year with poor grades, he said.
As a result, the administration refused to allow him to return this fall, Smith said, even though he sought readmittance because of the hardships.
Along with the racist letters, Smith said he frequently overheard racist jokes, and someone scrawled, “Let’s get the spooks out of here” on a bathroom wall.
He said he was stopped by police while driving his car with California license plates. The officer walked up to the car with a gun drawn and put it to the back of Smith’s head, he said.
He got a ticket for following too closely, he said, but the ticket later was thrown out of court.
His departure from Gonzaga means the racists got what they wanted, and the problem of bigotry is no closer to being solved, he said.
“It’s been going on longer than the school wants to admit publicly,” Smith said.
In the wake of the incidents last spring, black Spokane attorney Carl Maxey fired off a letter to the state and county bar associations.
“Gonzaga University needs your support as do the minorities who attend the school,” Maxey wrote.
Both associations passed resolutions condemning the racism, and now are participating in campus programs on cultural diversity, said Clute.
Law school professors also are offering additional academic help for any student, including minorities, who may have trouble with grades.
Administrators and faculty said the school can do more to make minorities feel at home.
The school has sponsored two receptions for minority students to help them get to know one other, Clute said.
One reception included minority students from other colleges in the area.
This fall, the law school has 83 minorities out of 587 students. However, only two blacks entered the first-year class.
The number of blacks in the law school now is seven.
Spokane County has a minority population of 7.3 percent, including a black population of 1.4 percent.
Juliana Repp, a Native American student and a member of the task force, said she’s pleased the university is taking action, and appears to be serious about it.
“Students are still concerned, obviously because the issue of who wrote the letters is still unresolved,” she said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.