(WORT)–Campus debates over racism, free speech, and ineffective policies are nothing new at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In 1988, a fraternity party sparked outrage when pledges in blackface staged a “slave auction.” Then-Chancellor Donna Shalala assembled a student committee to investigate, but they found the fraternity had violated no existing policy. Shalala decided to institute a “speech code” in response to pressure from anti-racism protesters, but that policy quickly came under fire from the ACLU for curtailing free speech and was abandoned.
Campus responses to the “slave auction incident” raise questions that are also relevant to the present moment, says Jillian Slaight, a Ph.D. candidate in History at the UW-Madison. Can a policy solve campus racism? How can student activists move administrators to action? Whose role is it ultimately to engage the white majority in addressing racism?
As part of the UW-Madison Archives Oral History Project, Slaight has been digitizing campus-related interviews and photos from the 1960s to the 1990s, and writing about her findings along the way. Her post on the 1988 incident, “Campus Racism & Responses: The Slave Auction Incident,” was published Tuesday on the UW-Madison Archives blog. In this interview, Slaight speaks with WORT’s Darien Lamen about how that incident, and the university’s failed policy response, relates to ongoing efforts to address racism on campus today.