Playing Games with Racism at Oberlin

Peter Wood

Oberlin College misstepped when it cancelled classes on March 4 in response to a vague and now discredited report of someone wearing a KKK robe and hood walking near the Afrikan Heritage House. It appears that a woman wrapped in a blanket against the chill had walked by and an Oberlin student, Sunny Tabler, primed to see racial hatred everywhere, jumped to conclusions. Tabler stands by her story, but there are no other witnesses to this apparition, which one might have thought would have drawn attention.

Oberlin’s president Marvin Krislov, dean of students Eric Estes, the campus newspaper, and seemingly a great many Oberlin students also jumped to conclusions. The imaginary KKK incident came on top of what looked like some real evidence of racial animosity on campus. But looks can be deceiving. The racial and anti-gay provocations scrawled on several posters and notes appear now to have been the work of two student hoaxers. 

Or perhaps more than two. In the wake of the “removal” of these two students, a wave of new graffiti is being reported by The Oberlin Review, along with claims that the “student organizers are being harassed, threatened and even chased on campus.” 

Does Oberlin have an underground network of white racist hate-mongers who have suddenly emerged from the shadows to wage a campaign of intimidation? John Leo, at Minding the Campus, is skeptical. So is George Dent, and I am too. The odds seem much better that this is hoaxing piled on hoaxing, along with strong seasoning of racial paranoia and administrative incompetence.

Such hoaxing, as Oberlin alumna Michelle Malkin points out, is nothing new at Oberlin. Obies have been manufacturing fake hate crimes against themselves since the 1990s. And, of course, this genre of campus agitprop isn’t limited to Oberlin. Malkin is the go-to journalist on this topic.  After the New York Times reports the original “incident” and has moved on (usually without corrections), Malkin covers the rest of the story: the lesbian high school student who vandalized her own car and her school with hate messages she later confessed were her own work; anti-black racist graffiti at the University of Mississippi that turned to be the handiwork of three black freshmen. But let’s not forget the most infamous of the hoax crimes, the accusations of rape against the Duke lacrosse players. 

Such hoaxing is by no means limited to schools and colleges, though educational settings appear to be the most frequent setting. Nor are they limited to any one time of year, though they appear especially frequent in February as part of Black History Month.  In February 2012, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside was arrested in for faking a “hit list” of students—including herself—that seemed part of a series of racist threats.  Back in October 2007, Teachers College at Columbia University held vigils and rallies on behalf of an African American professor who found a noose hanging from her doorknob. A grand jury investigated. It turned out that the professor in question had been under investigation for plagiarism, an infraction for which she was later dismissed. No one was ever accused of putting the noose on her door.  Another hoax? 

What should the administrators at Oberlin have done in this latest incident?  Let’s allow that President Krislov and Dean Estes must have felt considerable pressure from the campus community to “do something.” But it is hard to see them as innocent victims of mass hysteria.  Taken in their own words, they are part of the problem: college officials who play identity politics and feed the sense of generalized grievance which creates the conditions in which a college campus becomes primed to see “hate” where there is nothing but a pedestrian trying to keep warm. 

If it turns out that all of the offensive graffiti was the work of a few misguided students who, in the absence of any real evidence of racism and homophobia, decided to stir things up by fabricating evidence of their own, few will be surprised. If Oberlin wanted a “teachable moment,” this is it. The lesson isn’t pretty. Moral preening and self-righteousness come at a cost.  The integrity of the college leaks away.  A certain moral blindness becomes pervasive.

I write those words with some other images fresh in mind.  On March 1, 2011, a biracial student in a dormitory at Bowdoin College awoke to find a racial epithet scrawled on the white board on the door of her dormitory room.  What followed was much the same as the Oberlin incident.  The president and the dean of students fostered an atmosphere of hysterical overreaction.  We showed a few minutes of a video at the NAS’s national conference last week.  In the clip, we watch students who have sealed their mouths with duct tape one by one tear the tape off and declare their identities.  “I am multiracial, and I am Bowdoin,” says one.  “I am a Chicana from LA, and I love you, and I am Bowdoin,” says another, and so on though some two hundred “I am Bowdoiners.”

A response to an actual bias incident? Maybe. The epithet-scrawler was never apprehended. But it was easy to apprehend that Bowdoin College was in love with the idea of asserting identitarian claims as a form of “resistance” to some imagined sinister force of intolerance that had somehow slipped into the community. 

Apparently our liberal arts colleges need this sort of morality play, no less than Salem needed its witch trials in 1692. That’s not to say they are a good idea. It is to say that human communities often displace their real anxieties and discontents by conjuring invisible enemies within.  If it emerges that there really is an underground cell of racists at Oberlin, I’ll eat my hat. But if, ex hypothesi, there is such a cell, should President Krislove and Dean Estes have cancelled classes to teach it a lesson? 

What President Krislov and Dean Estes should have done and did not do is set an example of grown-up behavior. They should have made sure that inflammatory allegations passed an initial test of credibility before taking any action, and even then they should have proceeded with due caution. Given the history at Oberlin of hate crime hoaxes, they should have been on guard—and they should have responded accordingly to those demanding immediate action. They should have presented to Oberlin students and faculty their own resolve to be guided by the facts and the determination to be just. Instead, they fed the Oberlin community’s worst impulse—its readiness to congratulate itself on its sensitivity while displaying moral obtuseness. 

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