The flyer advertising Colin Powell’s upcoming talk at Vanderbilt University had originally asked, “Can a black man be president?” But a white student had crossed out Powell’s face and written in the name “Jamaal Nelson,” an African-American classmate who was running for student government president. The student had also drawn a noose around Nelson’s name and written racial slurs across the poster.

When Nelson heard about the graffiti, he wasn’t just angry and disappointed. He was ready to drop...

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