On March 4 Oberlin College in Ohio, which has always had an outsized role in the history of Black higher education, cancelled classes for a day and instead held a “Day of Solidarity” in response to a month-long series of hate speech being scrawled on various buildings, doors, and posters throughout the campus.
The words of hate were directed at Black, gay, and Jewish students, and students of Asian descent. According to Oberlin College officials, swastikas were drawn on some buildings and walls, “nigger” was written on some Black History Month posters, a note with the words “nigger + faggot center” was found in the college’s Multicultural Resource Center.
College officials said they made the decision to cancel classes for a day after a person wearing clothing – a robe and hood – that appeared to be similar to Ku Klux Klan garb was seen early that morning near the college’s Afrikan Heritage House. The action was taken, according to a statement released by the college, in order to undertake “a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks.”
Some, however, disagreed with the college’s cancelling of classes. For example, John S. Wilson, in a widely-circulated essay, criticized the decision. He said that it sent students the wrong message.
“By canceling classes and generally overreacting – let’s face it, racism and baseless discriminatory scrawls on posters and walls will never go away – Oberlin is only sheltering students instead of assisting them to overcome adversity, an action that would truly fortify their character,” Wilson wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.com. “What example does this set for students, many of whom will soon be in the workforce? If a supervisor or co-worker offends them, who will be there then to host their day of solidarity?”
Although college officials, the local police, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have yet to determine the source of these incidents, no more have occurred since the “day of solidarity.”
Nonetheless, at first thought, what happened at Oberlin College early this month, and the reaction to it may seem like “old news” now.
But it’s still very much worth discussing – because what happened at Oberlin and the reaction to it is never old news, especially in racial terms. Quite the contrary: it represents both a specific reaction to the current demographic transformation of the United States and – especially for Black Americans – one of the continuing themes of their existence in America.
This is why Wilson, whose essay shows him fully aware of American society’s persisting dynamic of discrimination, is wrong to describe Oberlin day of solidarity as meaningless, or even harmful.
For one thing, the hate-speech incidents, admittedly few in number, had been occurring for a month. In a close-knit college community the size of Oberlin – its enrollment is just 2,800 students – and in a small town in which the Oberlin campus literally sits in the town square, were these incidents targeting select numbers of Oberlin’s students to continue to be ignored?
The answer is no. Oberlin’s founding in the 1830s as a progressive institution led it to almost immediately begin regularly enrolling African Americans. So, in historical terms, Oberlin had a special duty to stop for a day its “normal” conduct of business and re-affirm its principles of tolerance.
That’s the Oberlin-centric context justifying a day of solidarity.
The broader scope takes in what is happening in the country at large – which was reflected in the very breadth of the hate-speech attacks at Oberlin itself.
Oberlin is not the only college in the land where such hatred against the presence of Black students, or Jewish students, or gay students, or students of Asian descent, or … — you get the picture – have occurred. Nor have such attacks been limited to furtive scrawls by persons unknown. We’ve seen them on placards carried at conservative political rallies. We’ve heard them from conservative politicians in high and low places. We’ve read them in scurrilous e-mails denigrating President Obama and the First Family.
The nation is changing; and there are, still, some significant number of people who don’t like the fact that all sorts of Americans who once had to be content with second-class status are now surging to claim their full-citizenship rights, their freedom.
As for Wilson’s worry that Oberlin’s “day of solidarity” will make students less able to deal with the discrimination they’ll face in the workforce, I say look to the Black college graduates of predominantly White colleges of the past 40 or so years. Many of them endured similar experiences during their undergraduate years. Many of them took part in “days of solidarity” or the like against such actions.
I think very few of them, if any, would say their ability to cope with the discrimination they subsequently found in the workplace was weakened by studying at an early age the various ways one can respond positively to acts of bigotry.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.