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Students respond in familiar way to all-too-familiar issue

At Rutgers University, students are protesting. All they want is for the school president to be fired.

Obviously students of history, the kids are using old-time tactics, including an actual sit-in -- which caused a regulation, big-time college basketball game to be called off at halftime.

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It takes you back.

So does the issue. The issue, predictably, is race. In what some people like to call color-blind America -- where affirmative action is under attack and people say it's not about race and where welfare is under attack and people say it's not about race -- the issue is often race.

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This time it's race and "The Bell Curve" and whether a college president thinks African-Americans are genetically inferior and whether it matters.

The argument is more complicated than you might think. This particular college president, one Francis Lawrence, is a long-time champion of increased black presence on majority-white campuses. The words that got him into trouble were spoken while questioning the use of SATs as a measure of black achievement.

Here's what happened. At a meeting with a faculty group last November, Lawrence pointed out that blacks average 750 on the SATs whereas whites average over 900. This difference presents a challenge for any university.

"Do we set standards in the future so that we don't admit anybody with the national test?" he asked. "Or do we deal with a disadvantaged population that doesn't have the genetic hereditary background to have a higher average?"

When Lawrence first talked about "genetic hereditary background," nobody noticed. It wasn't until a tape recording of the meeting was passed around and eventually sent to a newspaper that the issue took off.

It got really loud when a student sit-in at half-time of the Rutgers-Massachusetts basketball game caused the game to be called on account of protest.

Lawrence has said he didn't mean what he said. He used the now-popular "I misspoke" defense, recently invoked by House majority leader Dick Armey when he called Barney Frank, who is openly gay, Barney Fag. Armey said he would never say such a thing. Except he did. And it seems possible he may have even said it before.

In this era of "The Bell Curve," -- the best seller which argues that IQ is inherited, meaning that blacks, who generally score lower on IQ tests, must be genetically dumber -- the linking of genetics and intelligence is a sensitive topic. The book might have been on Lawrence's mind. It might even have made an impression.

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Put it this way: How often do you say something that is the exact opposite of what you actually think?

And yet, as president of Tulane, Lawrence led an effort to dramatically increase black enrollment. At Rutgers, where the population is 10 percent black, he has continued to talk a good game.

L Is talking a good game, or even playing a good game, enough?

Let's take the case of Al Campanis, the former baseball official who said on "Nightline" that blacks didn't have "the necessities" to manage. Campanis was once Jackie Robinson's roommate. As an official with the Dodgers, he was a leader in promoting blacks. He never understood that what he said was racist. He was not a bad man; he was, however, a man with some very bad ideas.

Another case would be the sainted Sun columnist H. L. Mencken, who attacked bigotry. Later, his diaries revealed -- surprise -- a closet bigot.

Go back to Thomas Jefferson, who said all men were created equal and yet owned slaves. The list goes on.

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People are often not one thing or another. They are often many things. Lawrence may be a good college president, even good for minorities, and yet hold beliefs that would disqualify him for the job. He may even be at war with himself over these beliefs. Or, just maybe, he didn't mean what he said.

Lawrence has apologized repeatedly. He has said that his life belies his words.

But what do you say to an African-American student at Rutgers? Here's what he knows -- that his school president said he was inferior. Lawrence's defenders say a career shouldn't be lost to three little words. But these were not any three little words. They hurt and they can't be easily taken back.

There's a lot of talk these days about campus apathy. These students had an issue. They got mad. They got loud. And people are actually listening.



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