My campus—like, no doubt, a good number of others—has been afflicted over the past 18 months or so by what seems like a rise in the number of racist incidents. We made the headlines recently, when someone attended a football game with an Obama mask on and a noose around his neck. (Oddly enough, the football stadium did not have a standing rule against people attending with nooses round their necks – and I am not sure how you can reasonably introduce such a rule frankly when you are about to introduce a rule that people can attend carrying guns). But there have been other, to my mind nastier (because anonymous) incidents. Nazi and other white-supremacist symbols scrawled here and there; “Heil Hitler” salutes in the face of two girls leaving sorority known (by those in the know which, bizarrely, includes me) to have a preponderance of Jewish members; racist graffiti in the bathrooms, etc. I say it ‘seems’ like a rise, because we don’t know how well reported incidents were before we introduced a specific mechanism for distinguishing racist and other ‘hate and bias’ incidents from general bad behaviour a couple of years ago. If there has really been a growth in incidents, that would be easy to explain. But one point of the post is to ask what the evidence suggests about whether there actually has been an increase on other campuses.
The other is to tell a little story about one of the lesser-known incidents. I tell the story because it is mildly amusing, but also because it hints at a different response to such incidents than that which has been publicized so much by the anti-coddling brigades. (I should say that students on my campus do not seem to demand coddling, though you might think that my response in the vignette below was a coddling response).
A student I regularly met with in the Spring is a member of a (n actually) Jewish sorority and, probably not coincidentally, Jewish. During one of our meetings I casually said something about one of the racist incidents in the news, and she became somewhat animated (to say she is not, usually, animated, would be an understatement) and told me not only about the Hitler salute incident above (which I didn’t yet know about) but that the door of a building right opposite her sorority house had a white supremacist symbol—a wolfsangel—scratched into it. She complained that it had been there for a number of weeks, even though they had told the police about it, and asked the building owner to remove it. I can completely see why it might need to be kept up for a week, maybe even more, for evidence (what do I know?) but it did seem to me that covering it up would be easy and would damage the evidence less than leaving it open to the elements. And that after a few weeks it is hard to see what purpose keeping it around would serve.
“Why haven’t you guys just covered it up or painted it over?”
“Well”, she looked uncomfortable, “We’re worried that we might get into a trouble”.
I laughed and told her I knew plenty of students who enjoyed getting into trouble, and, also, that I doubted a group of Jewish women would get into trouble for eradicating a racist symbol. But, different people have different strengths, and I know that it’s not her kind of thing. When she came in two weeks later, the symbol was still there, and I asked if she would mind if I mentioned it to some of my students who like getting into trouble. She was enthused. Very soon after that I was socializing with a few such students, and mentioned the issue: 4 of the students were connected to 4 non-overlapping groups of trouble makers. So I texted the picture of the symbol and gave them the address.
That was Monday of exam week. On Wednesday I ran into one of the 4 potentially trouble-making students—a whip smart, painfully softly spoken, Chinese woman who was graduating. In a tone that is as close to complaining as I’ve ever heard from her, she said she and her friends went out on Monday but the symbol had been eradicated already (i.e., someone else had got there first). She went on to ask if I knew of any other symbols she could paint over, and was sufficiently pushy that I started wondering whether I should be commissioning such symbols for her to deal with.
I didn’t see the original student again till the Fall. We meet from time to time and she has, this semester, told me about two more anti-semitic incidents off-campus that, as far as I know, have not been reported in the press. She confirmed that the symbol was eradicated on the Monday night, and I explained, somewhat apologetically, what had happened. She seemed fine with it. But maybe you think I should have handled it differently; if so I’m curious how. (Btw, the thought in the final sentence of the previous paragraph was a joke).