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Students Circle The Roundtables For Frank Talk On Divisive Party

January 26, 2007
By GRACE E. MERRITT, Courant Staff Writer

About 200 students, faculty and staff clustered into small groups in the elegant reading room of the University of Connecticut School of Law in Hartford Thursday to talk frankly about racism during a rare roundtable meeting about a controversial "Bullets & Bubbly" party held over the weekend.

Photos from the off-campus party, posted on the popular Facebook.com website, offended some students and staff because they depicted mostly white law school students dressed in baggy jeans, puffy jackets, sideways baseball hats, some holding machine guns and 40-ounce malt liquors. Some photos had captions from rap lyrics.

The law school's Black Law Students Association, which had held off commenting on the issue, held an impromptu press conference in a mock courtroom in the building after the event.

With about a dozen members standing behind her, Association President Natalie Braswell explained that the group initially was reluctant to speak out about the party because it didn't start the issue and didn't want to put the law school in a bad light.

"Our position was this was a community issue, not a black issue or a white issue," she said. "People shouldn't be looking at the BLSA for answers. It's a bigger issue. That has to be addressed before anything else can be addressed."

The issue has caused hurt feelings on campus and attracted unwanted media, including CNN. During the event, students applauded Student Bar Association President Ryan Greco when he scolded reporters for attending an event he said he hoped would be a therapeutic healing session. Many students also refused to speak to reporters.

Interim Law School Dean Kurt Strasser began the event by outlining the basics of the house party that had attracted about 75 law students Saturday night. He said the party photos, which seemed like harmless fun to some partygoers, were deeply offensive to other students "by exploiting and, to a degree, making fun of racial stereotypes."

He also chided the students for acting unprofessionally and said they have a responsibility as future lawyers to understand how their actions affect other people.

"As lawyers, you're going to be leaders in the society. Many of you are going to be important people, influential people, which means you are going to have to do better on these issues."

"If you don't understand why this is harmful to the community then you need to start asking questions and learn," he said.

Strasser said he hoped the roundtable would start mending the tear in the law school community, where black students comprise 5.9 percent of the 622-member student body.

After his talk, students and staff broke up into smaller groups gathered around tables and held intense discussions.

Greco said he had initially questioned the effectiveness of the approach, noting that many students expected more of a town hall format. But he said he was pleased about how candid and serious students were being.

Greco, who did not attend the party, said he has heard from students on all sides of the issue.

Chaia Odoms, a black law student who said she was not speaking on behalf of BLSA, said the event highlighted what she described as a pervasive problem.

"There are incidents on campus and the party this week is part of that. That is the very problem: that they didn't know it was a problem," she said.

Maurice Headley, another black law student, described it as an example of "unconscious racism," racism so institutionalized in the power structure of today's society that someone doesn't have to actually call someone a racial slur to be insulting.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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