SAN JOSE -- Whenever touring black high school seniors consider the sprawling San Jose State University campus, they are impressed by the main library named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and by the majestic statue depicting alums Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raising their fists in the Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics.
"Look at this," is what an awed Zhane Gay, now a sophomore health science major, thought when she saw the 20-foot-high sculpture on her visit from Southern California. Like so many others, she decided, "This is where I need to be."
But the recent turmoil over a racial bullying scandal has rattled the campus, and many black students are questioning how a university with these outward symbols of diversity leaves so many of them feeling isolated and lost inside.
In fact, blacks make up a paltry 4 percent of all students at San Jose State. Their graduation rate, 36 percent, is the lowest of all major ethnic groups at the school, a pattern repeated throughout the state. Only 3 percent of professors are black, and the already diminished African-American Studies program is under threat of elimination as a stand-alone department.
Many students like the school and its appearance of diversity, but are nettled by the disparate pathways of black transfer students, freshmen and upperclassmen. Student leaders say they need gathering places -- such as an African American-themed floor in the dorms and a student center -- to ensure social fusion and academic support.
"I think a lot of people think black students just want to segregate ourselves," said Gay. "We don't want that. We want the diversity, but we also want that inclusive space, too."
Their dissatisfaction grew a year ago when a columnist in the student newspaper, the Spartan Daily, argued that Black History Month was pointless.
Then, late last year, four white students were indicted on charges of committing hate crimes against a black freshman resident in their dorm suite. The February death of a black freshman in his dorm room, ruled a suicide, was -- on its own -- mysterious and deeply sad for black students.
As new black students sink into "a muted sense of being," said San Jose State sociology professor Ruth Wilson, they unhappily realize "there is no sense of the richness of African-American culture in the learning experience here."
Put another way by Gay: "If we want something, we literally have to fight."
That's the battle cry they are hearing from their elders -- veterans of the civil rights struggles of the '60s and '70s that noisily played out on this same campus.
In recent years, an uncomfortable alienation has festered, like a bandaged wound, among blacks on the 150-acre campus with some 30,000 students. An initiative to create a more inclusive campus lost momentum in a 2011 change of presidents. An incisive study documenting the alienation of all races and genders was set aside.
Then, last fall, the bandage was rudely ripped off when the campus learned that Santa Clara County prosecutors were about to charge four students with hate crimes against a black dorm resident.
In November, police reported that the white freshmen had systematically tormented their black roommate, snapping a bicycle lock around his neck and calling him bigoted nicknames. A Confederate flag and a board scrawled with the N-word were displayed in a shared living room, police said. The youth's parents -- not resident advisers or students -- exposed the situation.
It made some students and leaders -- including former Black Student Union President Alyxandra Goodwin -- wonder how no one among the black students had detected the trouble or reached out to help.
"No one really knew who he was," Goodwin said.
"We had just finished a great meeting of the Black Student Union when we heard about the hate crimes," recalled junior Ashlei McPherson. "We were talking about stereotypes and perceptions and how we can try to make things better on campus. We were feeling all good and then ..."
McPherson said the news crushed everyone in the room with a mixture of anger and defeat. Immediately, said Goodwin, "The message switched from 'We need to be recognized' to 'We need to protect our brothers and sisters.' "
The next day, Nov. 21, more than 1,000 students, staff and faculty -- of all colors -- marched as one, twisting through the heart of the campus, roaring out, "No justice, no peace!"
"We rallied," McPherson said, "and became determined that this terrible thing would not overcome all that black folks wanted to be on this campus."
Nearly every week since, the campus has been a whirl of protests, presentations, investigations, meetings and soul-searching -- all attempting to make San Jose State a better place for African Americans -- and, some say, for everyone.
"All these protests might look like blacks are working for only the good of blacks," said Chris J. Cox, a sociology lecturer on the campus, where Asians, Latinos and other minority groups also feel marginalized. Cox is on a task force analyzing the bullying case and how to improve the school's quality of life.
"All kinds of people are working on social justice to make this a good place for all students, faculty and staff," he said.
The November controversy spurred an aggressive uptick in planning February's Black History Month -- which is being extended into the first week of March.
At a Feb. 12 black student meeting, undergraduates were embraced by leaders of protests in other controversies, including the slayings of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant. The school's black alumni also opened their arms.
"Embrace those who came before you," was the message from Vickie Stephens, an '80s graduate who happily recalls a campus with more blacks than today -- and a very close-knit bunch. Stephens now runs the San Jose State Black Alumni Network, which urges, "Reach up to us, while we reach back to pull you along to success."
On Monday, the university booked the fiery African-American author Michael Eric Dyson to deliver a speech: "Are we post-racial, or is racism still a problem?" The sociology professor and pundit's soaring oratory -- indicting institutional racism, homosexual hatred, political hypocrisy, and praising black pride and achievement -- lit up the packed-in multicultural audience.
The dorm bullying, Dyson said, exemplified the "vicious intemperance of racial animus," that "asserts itself with lethal ferocity."
Ironically, another recent speaker was the most infamous radical in school history -- Harry Edwards, the catalyst behind the 1960s Olympic Project for Human Rights and the black power salutes.
The imposing, 71-year-old sociologist urged students to sacrifice, protest and work for the future campus community -- but not to be naive.
"When you stand up," Edwards said in a booming voice, "you will pay a price. ... If you really take this thing on, you will not get out unscathed."
Although many may accept that risk, there's a realization that they need to be more creative than confrontational.
"Students need to take most of the responsibility for campus climate," McPherson said.
"No one else can take the lead on creating the nurturing community all of us need so badly."
Contact David E. Early at 408-920-5836 or email@example.com and Katy Murphy at 510-293-6424.