Oberlin College Hate Speech Imitates How Americans Discriminate As Adults


A wave of racist, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic messages that were left around campus caused liberal Oberlin College to cancel its classes to promote a "day of solidarity." The Oberlin Review documented many of the offenses including "the replacement of 'Black' with 'N*gger' on Black History Month posters, drawings of swastikas, damage to the 'Year of the Queer' posters, and reported destruction of the Chinese calendar." Walls in one of the campus buildings were strewn with offensive hate-filled graffiti including "'Whites Only' written above a water fountain, 'N*gger Oven' written inside the elevator and 'No N*ggers' written on a bathroom door."

Oberlin College reacted swiftly and appropriately to address the intolerance and incivility of members of its community. However the fact that it occurred in the first place, in a largely progressive and liberal environment, indicates that a post-racial-or-ethnic and gender neutral society is still a work in progress.

Oberlin College is just the latest campus where hate-filled messages indicate and reaffirm that the United States has still got a long way to go before it can successfully say it is living in a post–racial or gender neutral society. If these hateful, uncivil, and intolerant messages are sprouting up at our institutions of "higher learning" amongst our next generation of leaders, then we have a big problem to tackle.

The month long wave of hatred seemed incongruous with the historically liberal college's history. The New York Times reports that Oberlin College is routinely listed as one of the "most progressive, activist and gay-friendly schools in the country." It was "one of one of the first colleges in the nation to educate women and men together, one of the first to admit black students, and before the Civil War, it was an abolitionist hotbed and an important stop on the Underground Railroad." But as we can see reputation and history is oftentimes not enough to prevent narrow minded intolerance.

After the re-election of President Obama in 2012, students on the campuses of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and the University of Mississippi hurled racial slurs as they protested their disappointment in the results. At Bowling State University vandals wrote "White Power" and drew a swastika on the ground in front of the home of the African-American head coach. Nooses were displayed on the campuses of the University of West Florida and the University of California San Diego. The University of California San Diego reached an agreement with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to take steps to address issues of racial harassment on campus partially stemming from the display of nooses on campus.

Social media plays a big role in the spread of racial, ethnic, and gender intolerance on campus. Jessie Daniels, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at CUNY-Graduate Center and Hunter College who says her research shows that "Racism on college campuses these days often spreads through email or via popular social networking sites, such as Facebook." As an example, she cites the case of Harvard Law School's Stephanie Grace, who in 2010 started a racist email war when she wrote that African Americans were genetically less intelligent. Daniels maintains that the type of overt racist conversations that used to be done through handwritten notes is now done through the Internet, and that leads us to question what is socially acceptable and what isn't on college campuses.

If it comes down to free speech versus social acceptance, then maybe it is just a case of civility. Richard Wells, chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, says one factor contributing to all the ugliness is the ease and perceived anonymity of technology. At some universities, e.g. the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, they are promoting an environment of civility that balances "the articulation of unpopular and unsettling ideas" with the "rights, safety, dignity, and value of every individual." George Mason lecturer Leslie Morton explains "We're trying to encourage respect, tolerance."

In truth, we can't blame these young adults, certainly not when we have our political leaders actively engaged in activity that undermines a tolerant society. Even now, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the discriminatory practice of disallowing federal benefits for same-gender couples. Republicans actively attempt to institute laws that suppress voter turnout amongst minorities. The Republican "southern strategy" and the Democratic Party's use of race-baiting reached such a crescendo last year that the 2012 presidential election became the most racially polarized election in decades.

The incidents on Oberlin's campus reached a climax when a student was mistakenly accused of donning a KKK outfit outside the Afrikan Heritage House. "Lt Mike McCloskey of Oberlin police told The Guardian on Monday that officers were still following up the KKK sighting, but suggested that the only witness may have been mistaken." The Guardian noted that according to McCloskey, the college students "responsible for the racist vandalism had now been caught and were being dealt with."

Many people believe that America has moved beyond its period of intolerance and into an era of "kumbaya" harmony and togetherness. That's not true, if our college campuses are any indication.