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Is George Zimmerman on Your Campus?

In the weeks leading up to the arrest of George Zimmerman, many people were shocked to find him on campus at Ohio State University. Of course, he wasn’t there in physical form, but his name and the phrase “Long live George Zimmerman” was written (presumably by a student) on the Frank W. Hale Black Cultural Center at Ohio State. This was a stunning and ugly act, analogous to racial slurs on campus walls, nooses on professors’ doors, and “ghetto”-themed parties that have become common extracurricular activities on college campuses.

The response of the Ohio State administration is emblematic of most institutions’ responses to occurrences such as these. The university released a statement decrying the act and stating, “this is not who we are.”

Any administrator worth his or her salary knows that racist and unacceptable acts occur with some frequency on campuses. Both national news and research illustrate this, and the real frequency is likely much higher than what gains enough notoriety to be reported in media. Just like sporting events and Greek organizations, racist acts are an extracurricular activity on college campuses. Yet, administrators act as if these occurrences are aberrational when they happen on their campus. They are not; the acts are systematic, annual and regular features of campus life. The proverbial “this is not who we are” response becomes a soft stance that does not address the systemic nature of the problem on campus. 

When students commit these kinds of acts, indeed, it is part of who the university is. Just as when institutions claim their students’ athletic and academic success as their own, institutions also must claim students’ flaws as their own. That is, institutions do not have the privilege of claiming student achievements as their own but then disassociating with students’ racist antics. If you admit students to your body, they are a part of your campus family—for better or for worse. When such acts happen on campus, it is part of who you are. It may not be who you wish to be, but it certainly is a part of who you are now, and acknowledging this fact is a vital step to changing campus culture.

It is not the ugly events that happen in our society that show us who we are. It is how we respond to these events, and thus what we will tolerate, that show us who we are. This applies directly to college campuses too. We know not who a university is by its recruitment materials. We know who it is and where it stands with issues of suffering and justice by how it responds to instances such as the one at Ohio State. Or directly relevant to universities, we should have a good idea where they stand by the specific disciplinary plans they have in place for when an event such as this will inevitably happen again. Do universities take these offenses seriously enough to expel a student who commits such an act? Is the penalty severe enough to cease a student’s matriculation and hinder his or her professional trajectory? If not, I would seriously question a university’s commitment to equity and justice.

From now on, when I visit campuses to speak or interact with students, I am making it a priority to ask administrators about the exact penalties for acts such as these on their campus, and I would encourage other scholars and practitioners to do the same.  When (not if) a student writes a racial slur on a wall, what will happen to that student? The next time a campus organization throws a variation of a ghetto-themed party, what are the consequences for that entire organization? When a student uses a national controversy such as the non-arrest of George Zimmerman as an opportunity to affirm White supremacy, what is the plan? Ultimately, it is the duty of faculty, staff, and administrators to hold one another accountable for taking the appropriate stance.

Emery Petchauer (@EmeryPetchauer) is assistant professor of teacher education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives: Elements, Embodiment, and Higher Edutainment (Routledge).

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