I am interested to see what comes out of the wave of odious incidents that hit University of California campuses last month.
African-American students at UC San Diego were offended when they learned about an off-campus “Compton Cookout” party” and later that a noose and KKK-style hood were placed on campus. UC Davis students had to deal with swastikas, the gay and lesbian center was vandalized and a portrait of a noose was scribbled at UC Santa Cruz.
The concepts concerning this “problem” that have circulated in California and around the nation regarding this story are the notions of “hate” and “intolerance” and “ignorance.” Even a group of primarily African-American UC Berkeley student protesters wrote on one of their flyers, “We are brothers and sisters in a nonviolent, silent demonstration, standing in solidarity with the UCSD students who have been affected by blatant acts of ignorance and hatred.”
In others words, the perpetrators of these acts “hate” African-Americans. They are neither “tolerant” of African-American culture, nor are they knowledgeable about acts that “offend” African-Americans. And in mainstream thought, racial hate is caused by racial ignorance. Therefore, the solution to the “problem” that led to these acts would be educating these perpetrators about how to be more tolerant of difference, what African-Americans find offensive and the myths of stereotypes. In fact, UC San Diego has “diversity” course requirements in the works.
I guess I am not convinced that hate, intolerance and ignorance constitute the main “problem.” I think these vicious acts have more to do with a symbolic assertion of the dominance and power of White students in the UC system — one that has reached critical proportions in recent years after affirmative action policies were destroyed.
It appears that UC officials have made the connection between these incidents and the abysmal figures of African-American students at these schools. So they are increasing their efforts to recruit more African-American students and professors.
These moves are good starts. But there has been little talk about empowering the African-American students to equal out the power dynamics between groups on campus.
African-American students can be empowered with the enactment of zero-tolerance policies and procedures with teeth in part regulated by the students. In other words, they would have a central role in the investigations and punishment of perpetrators of offensive acts.
African-American students, since their numbers are so low and their authority is so slight, do not pose a threat to students considering throwing a party that may insult them. Who cares if this small, powerless group gets upset about this noose?
To me, these acts were a dramatic expression of the plight of the UC African-American student body. Only when their numbers increase and, more importantly, they are visibly empowered through initiatives like zero-tolerance policies, will we see the rates of these incidents significantly decrease.
Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta