The Art of Persuasion


Washington. -- Student activists confiscated 10,000 copies -- half the press run -- of The Diamondback, the campus newspaper of the University of Maryland. They left flyers explaining the action as a protest against The Diamondback's "racist nature."

As a minority student who worked for the paper for three years until last spring, I can say that The Diamondback is anything but a racist paper. Because it is student-run, anybody who attends the College Park campus can become a staff writer and later be promoted to editor.

I know this from experience. One Sunday afternoon, a day before my first day on campus, I walked into the newsroom and asked if I could write for the paper. The only staff member present, a white female student, told me all I had to do was fill out a page-long application and submit something that I wanted published.

I filled out the application and submitted a column on foreign policy, which argued that Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or openness, would not save the Soviet Union unless he freed the market by introducing capitalism.

The next day when I got to school I picked up the paper and there it was -- on the editorial page with my name in big bold letters on the top of the column. (Alas, my column did not persuade Mr. Gorbachev, who didn't free the market and lost his job.)

I became a regular contributor to the page. For three semesters, I wrote a weekly column on domestic and foreign affairs. For three more semesters I published two columns a week, which depressed my grades.

During my many trips to the newsroom I saw few black students working on the paper -- except Ivan Penn, the editor-in-chief one year, Edward Heard, the opinion-page editor, and one or two others. I was given different reasons for the relative scarcity of black students. Some said it was a white campus; others that there weren't enough black writers; and some said the paper didn't encourage black students who wanted to write.

What I found was that black students often took their stories to the school's black newspapers, and that black students who joined The Diamondback were accused of "selling out to the white paper."

Mr. Penn, the black editor-in-chief, was once accused by the Black Student Union of running a racist paper. He demanded that they show him what stories were racist. Instead, the activists called him an "Oreo cookie," someone with a black exterior and white interior.

My own story was similar. My columns were conservative and unpopular with black and other minority students. But instead of "Oreo cookie," I was called a "coconut," in reference to my Somali birth.

If minority students want to be taken seriously on American campuses, which have become much more diverse in recent years, they should engage in real debate on the opinion pages of their schools' newspapers. Confiscation is no substitute for persuasive arguments.

Abdul Abdi is a Washington writer.

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