Thursday, April 02, 2009


The campus is abuzz over yet another piece of ugly graffiti.
A class studying civil rights activist Dorothy Irene Height�s life and legacy stood up to the person who perpetrated the most recent act of cowardly graffiti on the St. Cloud State University campus.

Several students in a class called Race in America, without prompting from university administrators, banded together to immediately and publicly denounce a racist message posted on a bulletin board honoring Height�s accomplishments. They left the racist vandal some graffiti of their own.

�Not true. Not funny. Not OK in my community,� read one.

�Racism is ignorance,� read another.

�Man up,� another read. �Do you talk to your mother with that mouth?�

The student-driven outcry spread through text messages, e-mails, Twitter and Facebook early this week and continued Wednesday. By Wednesday evening, students had left more than 100 notes for the unknown racist.

This is the very same bulletin board we discussed last year; I know the professor and the class, and saw the board before the graffiti and the response. The display had once again the amateur drawings, but in this case laying out the life of a woman whose story wasn't very well known, and perhaps did need to be more known. Unlike last year's, this display had the quality of telling a biography in an informative way. (I'll suggest someone from that class should spiff up her Wiki page; they seem to have learned enough to improve on this.)

There's no doubt that the person who chose to scrawl graffiti on that display deserves condemnation. One hopes that the student would receive instruction on why that's not the way to engage those with whom you disagree.

But really, "the unknown racist"? Isn't this a bit extreme? I saw a couple of groups, lead by faculty, walking past the display. (UPDATE: Stepped out for a few minutes and found the professor with some of her class, filming statements around the display: They've announced they will be put up on Facebook and Twitter.) The notes pasted up are by and large of the "that ain't cool, man" variety, but a few would suggest something more angry. One of the short stories I read in an English class (I think in high school) was The Lottery. Does anyone assign this any more? Do students have an appreciation of how groupthink can lead sometimes to mob violence? The question is, does one graffito make a racist, known or unknown?

It intrigued me that in this story -- unlike any stories ever written about crime, for instance -- the race of each student quoted in the story is identified. Sure, I understand the reason being to show solidarity, unity in opposing racism. But have we now reached a point where journalistic standards will include a style sheet saying when it's OK to recognize race and when it's not OK?

A few days ago James Taranto commented on a similar story, an AP report that despite the existence of President Obama not all jokes about race have stopped whizzing over the internet. He traces out the history of the United States and notes:

How far does America still have to go to bridge its centuries-old racial divide? Liz Sidoti answers the question:

Even in 2009, a black man cannot become president of the United States without some knuckleheads sending stupid emails about him.

To be sure, America has made some racial progress. But the dream of equality will not be truly and fully realized until President Obama's political detractors treat him with the same respect George W. Bush's detractors showed him.

Like all colleges, our university has many young people, learning about what it means to be an educated person, engaging in self-expression. We have classes that teach about race mandated for every student, but reacting with this mass expression to any dissent to it. Our university's goal may be to reduce racism in one place, but a policy of zero expresssions of racial slurs is a chimera. We are human beings, fallen from Eden. Most of us resist sin some of the time; none of us resist all sin all the time. How should a university treat one of its students -- if indeed that's who it is -- who falls, who fails?

SCSU may think it is overcoming racism with its hallway displays. But if we're ever going to really overcome racism, it will be when we stop looking for the guy who drew the graffito with stones in our hands or fury in our pens and markers, and can instead embrace him or her with the same love and discipline (law and gospel, if you will) that we show any other wayward child, and it stops being a news story.

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