Mark Wright insists he is not a racist. A bright, articulate electrical engineering major at the University of Florida, he plays the piano at a Baptist church with a largely Hispanic congregation and hopes to one day live in Japan. But Wright has stirred controversy on campus by calling for a white student union to advocate the end of affirmative action programs.
His proposal raises questions about whether a new racism is growing among today's college students. Wright insists it is simply a backlash among whites who feel they are victims of discrimination in the form of quotas designed to help disadvantaged blacks.
"The people who are racists are the liberals who say blacks need special treatment," Wright said. "We're the non-racists because we say give them equal treatment."
But the emergence of at least one other white student union, at Temple University in Philadelphia, and a disturbing number of racial incidents on campuses across the country have prompted concern among civil rights activists about the attitudes of this generation of college students.
"They are too young to have seen segregation and its aftermath and too young to have been inspired by what's possible when race isn't a factor," said Steve Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council, a civil rights group based in Atlanta.
Wright, 23, says his group is a response to frustration at what he calls the "reign of terror of civil rights." Whites who oppose affirmative action, he said, are afraid to speak out for fear of
being labeled racists.
"There's all this attention to minorities," he said. "You get tired of it. You want to say, "Hey, treat them like anybody else.'
For blacks on campus, only 5 percent of the university's 35,000 students, Wright's efforts have been unsettling. Black students packed the group's first two meetings, sparking debate with the 30 or so whites who attended.
"A lot of these white student unions are fronts for white supremacists," said David Padgett, 25, a graduate geography student. "I went to their meeting and listened for facts, and I didn't hear any. It's one thing to be ignorant, but closed-minded ignorance is scary."
Florida administrators are uneasy but say they have no choice but to allow the group to meet on campus if it submits a constitution that complies with university regulations.
"We are committed to the free exchange of ideas, even those that people find distasteful," said Dr. Art Sandeen, vice president for student affairs.
Like many other universities, Florida has student unions for various ethnic groups, including blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Wright said his group is partly a response to the black student union. If blacks have a union, he said, whites should have one to watch out for their interests.
His argument angers black students.
They cite several recent incidents at Florida as evidence of the need for a black voice on campus: the selection of a white man over a black woman as the new university president, an off-campus attack on several black female students by skinheads, university police questioning black males on campus and a lack of coverage of black issues by the Alligator, a student-run, independent newspaper.