Friday, October 12, 2007

Racism a Daily Occurrence at Columbia?

As the media seems to have jumped on of late, Columbia has had a few problems recently in terms of individual acts by people on campus that are targeted at either certain people or certain groups on campus. I'll start from the beginning (as shown in the timeline from this Spec article) for this year. Back in September there was some graffiti found in a stall at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) that essentially told everyone who was not a white European to leave America (in slightly more inappropriate terms), then there was the noose hung on a black professor's door at Teacher's College on October 9, and finally culminating in anti-Semitic graffiti being found at Lewisohn Hall on Columbia's campus yesterday. This is just the past month, the timeline (which I suggest you look at to get the whole picture) goes back to 2004, where a total of 9 "bias incidents" (I'm not counting Ahmadinejad's speech, like the Spec does). This brings up an important question, as it appears two sides are squaring off in this debate: are these simply isolated incidents perpetrated by one or a couple of ignoramuses looking to rile people up, or is it indicative of subtle racist undertones that persist at the university? Take this quote from the Spec: "Many called the placement of the noose the tip of the iceberg and that racism pervades the halls and classrooms of Teachers College." Numerous other student groups and leaders have come out from various arenas to denounce the various acts and several students have come out to say that racism is not only alive but prevelant on campus. Then there is the other side of the argument, that these incidents are isolated and that people are overreacting. A lot of comments also point the blame for the noose incidents to the victim herself, harping on the story of Kerri Dunn.

My first question is this: why so much media coverage? I understand the media for the noose incident - I feel that that is a serious thing - but graffiti on a bathroom stall? That's middle school shit, honestly. I do not remember national coverage for the Ruggles incident, and those kids got off easy (the criminal case - originally an E Felony - was dropped despite the two defendants missing a court date and the two were not immediately expelled [or, it appears, officially expelled]), and that was a serious case.

Now before people start saying I am anti-Semitic because I think that the Lewisohn graffiti is not that big of a deal compared to the noose incident, let me explain my reasoning (everything is relative). The noose incident is targeted at a specific individual - the professor whose door it was hung upon. The graffiti in Lewisohn - apparently of a swastika and a drawing of a man in a yarmulke - is not directed at any one person and was drawn in a spot not frequented by the general public. But, here's the kicker - drawing a swastika in an isolated bathroom is a greater crime in the state of New York than hanging a noose on the door of a black professor. Drawing a swastika on property is an E felony (PL 240.31(3)) and the noose incident would be an A misdemeanor (PL 240.30(3)). The only reason for this is because the drawing of a swastika is specified as a felony, where there is no mention of a noose and the only thing that specifically would target blacks is a burning cross, a symbol of the KKK, which also hates Jews. The fact that Jews are specifically protected under New York law and blacks are not is telling and may be in violation of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. In my view, however, a specific threat against someone in plain view, using a symbol of hate associated with disgusting acts, far outweighs graffiti in a bathroom stall in hidden view of a symbol of hate associated with disgusting acts.

So let's get into another aspect of this whole mess - the freedom of speech argument. There are rumors that the NYCLU has been mulling over defending whoever is eventually charged in the crime involving the hanging of the noose, claiming that it is a First Amendment issue. Bollinger disagrees, and I'm going to have to agree with him. As I stated above, this was a specific act targeted toward a specific person for the reason of inflicting harm and for that reason it should not be protected under the First Amendment. If the noose had been hung outside on a random tree or, as happened earlier today, outside a post office near the site of the World Trade Center attacks, then it may be possible to defend the act under the First Amendment. Look at Brandenburg v. Ohio, where the court says that the "mere abstract teaching [of] the moral propriety or even moral necessity for a resort to force and violence", the type of thing that a noose hung in a public place not associated with one person or a swastika drawn on some random bathroom stall is not enough to limit a person's speech (though the vandalism for the drawn swastika should be pursued and punished). But we are dealing with a threat here towards a specific person and that is not a free speech issue (you cannot just tell someone that you are going to kill them and claim protection under the First Amendment). I am sure that the NYCLU is thinking that they are upholding the freedom of speech in defending this future defendant, but in reality they are tarnishing it and twisting it to make a crime legal, and that may hurt their future cases for the First Amendment if they actually have a legitimate case. Pick and choose your battles NYCLU, this is not one of them.

So, back to the original question - are these just isolated incidents or are they indicative of a racist or prejudiced environment on campus? I do not know if the answer can fit within such dichotomous categories. Are these isolated incidents? I think they are a little more than that, given what I have heard people say around campus and some attitudes I have witnessed that are held by students. Is Columbia actively racist and fostering bigotry within its halls? I would not go as far to say that. I think that it lies somewhere between isolated incidents and an actively racist campus. As far as the professor having done it herself: unfortunately it would not be unprecedented and until the police a) name a suspect and/or b) arrest said suspect, nothing can be ruled out. As far as racism underlying campus life, I've certainly heard stories that seem to marginalize the darker-skinned students here (such as security hassling black students late at night unless they are wearing Columbia clothing), but my being white and with no hard evidence to support the theory, to know the full extent of marginalization on campus of certain racial/ethnic/religious groups is impossible. One thing is for certain: these incidents have no place at an institution of higher learning and they need to be pursued fully by the administration followed by a clear, timely response. Peace.

Photos - Top to bottom: Graffiti that occurred in a Ruggles suite in 2004 (, Graffiti found in a stall in SIPA (, The noose hanging on the door of a Teacher's College professor's office door (, Professor Madonna Constantine, the professor whose office was targeted at Teacher's College (

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