Racist acts at UC San Diego underscore deeper tension on campus

A racially themed party and an incident involving a noose have roiled UC San Diego. But if the school handles the incidents appropriately, some academic experts say, students could ultimately benefit from an enhanced classroom experience.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
UCLA Political Science student Mekeirla Bryant, center, and other students rally at the UCLA campus in Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 2, 2010 to protest racially tinged incidents and what they say is an intolerant atmosphere at University of California campuses. The demonstration comes after an off-campus "Compton Cookout" party that mocked Black History month, and a noose in a library at UC San Diego.

Two race-related incidents in the past month have drawn attention to latent racial tensions at UC San Diego. But if the school handles the incidents with skill, say academic experts, it can turn them into a positive, “teachable moment.”

First, on Feb. 15, a racially themed party was held off campus to mock the commemoration of Black History Month. Then on Feb. 24, a noose was hung in the campus library.

Now, a student has apologized anonymously in the student newspaper for the noose incident. But rallies, protests, and marches are still planned for this week, even as the chancellor has released a video condemning the actions.

“I strongly condemn the acts of hate and bias that have occurred over the past days,” said Chancellor Marye Anne Fox in a Web-based video. “We are feeling real pain, and we will take real action.”

Other incidents have also created waves on the campus in recent weeks, including one involving a KKK-style hood on a statue, as well one involving Koala TV, a student-run TV station.

Local black activists have been quick to condemn the actions.

“It is very disturbing that this kind of racial intolerance rears its ugly head, especially in the age of Obama,” says Najee Ali, executive director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. in Los Angeles. “It shows we haven’t come as far as we think in promoting tolerance and unity among ethnic groups.”

Nationally as well, sociologists are troubled by the symbolism.

"Historically, the noose is meant to evoke terror – simply, that your life is in jeopardy if the racial fault lines are breached in any way,” writes Dr. Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia, in an e-mail. “The noose is a way of symbolically marking that certain places (a park, a beach, a neighborhood) are white spaces and your ‘kind’ is not welcome.”

But others see a tangible silver lining, if the incidents are handled well.

“It is a teachable moment for the entire campus that can link, educationally, to their classroom experience and last far into the future,” says Darnell Cole, associate professor of education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Formal activities, Dr. Cole says, could be organized to discover students’ attitudes on a host of issues, from race to ethnicity to disabled people. Subsequent activities could investigate where student views came from, whether they are valid or not, and how to debunk some views if necessary.

Yet some people wonder aloud whether too much has been made of the two incidents, even though they came close together. The party incident was broadened in scope virally by its placement on Facebook.

The millennial generation is actually a lot more tolerant of racial and cultural differences than their predecessors, says Jason Smikle, president of TUV MediaWorks, a Web-based media company that helps companies connect to and better understand the urban college market. Online social media, he says, give this kind of controversies more leverage and make them appear more widespread than they really are.

"These two incidents are just another example of what I call 'racism 2.0,' in which thousands more people are exposed to and thereby affected by otherwise isolated incidents,” Mr. Smikle writes in an e-mail. “Today, one idiot hangs a noose in a library, and thousands are affected and offended by it instantly."

Many agree that the university’s stance, led by Chancellor Fox, cannot come too soon or be stern enough.

“In my mind, the school cannot overreact in responding to this situation,” writes in an e-mail Lori Brown, associate professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “ I’ve seen it happen before, where the school can actually lose students by thinking that this will blow over. It won’t. I would put signs up all around campus that say, ‘Not at our school.’ ”

This incident, she says, has violated trust with minority students, and those students are “scared.”

In the University of California system, the San Diego campus has some of the lowest percentages of African-American students, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“If the school lets this go, the hidden message to minorities is that we are not watching out for you,” she says. “That is why the response by the school needs to be swift and let it be known to students that there is zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.”

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