"Gangsta" theme parties thrown by whites are drawing the ire of college officials and heated complaints from black and white students who say the antics conjure the worst racial stereotypes.
University officials, the NAACP and others have condemned the parties as insulting and inexcusable under any circumstances. At the same time, some black academics said they are not surprised, given the popularity of rap music among inner-city blacks and well-to-do suburban whites alike.
The white students, they said, were mimicking the kind of outlaw posturing that blacks engage in in rap videos. They suggest the white students ended up crossing the same line that says it is OK for blacks to use words considered racial slurs, but not all right for whites to do it.
Whites often don't realize their actions are offensive because they are imitating behavior celebrated in music and seen on TV, said Venise Berry, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Iowa who has researched rap music and popular culture.
"The segment of rap music that is glamorized and popularized by the media is gangsta rap," said Ms. Berry, who is black. "It has become an image that is normalized in our society. That to me explains clearly why they don't see it as wrong."
At an off-campus "Bullets and Bubbly" party thrown by University of Connecticut School of Law students in January, pictures showed students wearing baggy jeans, puffy jackets and holding fake machine guns.
Often such parties go unnoticed outside campuses until students post pictures on Web sites. That's how images of the Clemson party surfaced this week. One student wore blackface; another white student padded her pants to make her rear end look bigger.
Harold Hughes, a black fraternity member at Clemson whose frat brothers attended the party, said white students "see this on MTV and BET; they think it's cool to portray hip hop culture." Mr. Hughes said he found it offensive that the party was held over the Martin Luther King holiday.
Many white Clemson students said they didn't think the party was held to intentionally offend blacks, and organizers later issued an unsigned letter of apology. Still, school officials are investigating, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said the party was not harmless fun.
"We once lynched African-Americans as good fun and humor," said Lonnie Randolph, the president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP.