Hate crime incident sparks outrage

Grace Jackson, News Reporter

The Whitman College administration’s inaction in the face of a hate crime and racial bias incident on campus has sparked outrage among students.  

The first incident occurred in the early hours of Jan. 26. A man and woman not associated with the college yelled a racial slur and pushed a black student who was walking home to their apartment, according to the daily crime log kept by the Whitman security department and an email sent to campus via the announcements listserv by the Black Students Union and the Whitman African Students Association. 

Initially, the incident was recorded as a racial bias incident, but after an investigation it has been upgraded to a hate crime. According to Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Thomas Witherspoon, the college’s official procedure dictates different responses for each kind of incident. 

A hate crime is administratively and legally more serious than a racial bias incident and can result in criminal prosecution. All bias incidents  — which include both racial bias incidents and ones based on discrimination for other protected characteristics like gender  — are handled by the administration through their own unique procedure. 

“Bias incidents are acts or behaviors motivated by the offender’s bias. Whereas a hate crime is a criminal offense committed against a person or property which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias,” Witherspoon said in an email to The Wire.

Another incident occurred a little over two weeks later on Feb. 13, outside of the Sigma Chi fraternity on E Isaacs Ave. This incident was — and still is — characterized as a racial bias incident. 

According to Sigma Chi chapter president Sid Shapiro, “One of our members who lives on the third floor has a window that’s facing Isaacs [Ave.], and he was hanging out there — on I believe it was a Thursday night — and he heard some yelling down there. He thought he heard the n-word — is what he said. He knew in that moment he wasn’t sure if he heard the n-word but he wanted to make sure that it got reported even if he wasn’t 100% sure because he felt like that would make campus safer. ” 

Two days after the incident at Sigma Chi, the college sent out a federally mandated update to campus, called a “timely warning.”

Federal law dictates the response taken by a college or university to both racial bias incidents and hate crimes. Part of this is the timely warning system, which is mandated in the Jeanne Clery Act, according to the Clery Foundation. The Clery Act dictates how crimes are recorded and reported to the campus community on all federally funded college campuses in the U.S.  

Most of the members of Sigma Chi — including Shapiro — were not aware of the incident until after the timely warning email was sent to the student body. After ascertaining the details of the event, “we [the members of Sigma Chi] talked about it as a chapter and basically decided what our member did was right,” Shapiro said.

According to the Crime Reports and Timely Warnings page of the Whitman College website, “A timely warning is information about a serious situation or pattern of incidents which occur on the campus, on adjacent public property and on reportable non-campus property, issued to the campus community when in the judgment of the Dean of Students, the Director of Security and/or the Security Director’s supervisor; it constitutes an ongoing or continuing threat.”

On the same day that the timely warning email was sent, the Black Students Union (BSU) and the Whitman African Students Association (WASA) sent a response to the campus community in the form of an annotated version of the timely warning email. 

Their email was sent to President Kathy Murray, Dean of Students Kazi Joshua, Director of Security Marvin Viney and the announcements listserv. It challenged the language used in the timely warning email and included a list of demands for anti-racism action. 

“It is overwhelmingly clear that these incidents are an ongoing threat and the administration needs to take action immediately. WASA/BSU demands that Whitman College takes an Anti-Racist stance against EVERY racial bias,” WASA and BSU wrote.

Their demands included not victim blaming in cases of racial violence and discrimination, telling the campus community to “hold your peers accountable in and outside the classroom” and to “realize that P.O.C. [people of color] are constantly uncomfortable and unsafe.”

WASA and BSU also highlighted the use of language like “racial epithet” and the lack of details of the physical nature of the first incident as problems with the timely warning email. 

On other campuses, the responses of administrators to hate crimes and racial bias incidents have also caused outrage. 

A string of anti-Semitic and racist incidents caused widespread outrage on the campus of Syracuse University and culminated in calls for the chancellor to resign, according to The Guardian. The Syracuse student newspaper, the Daily Orange, recorded 29 racial bias incidents as of Nov. 7. Incidents ranged from graffiti in residence halls to an anti-Semitic death threat sent to a professor.

In response to what they see as an inadequate response from the University’s administration, students have launched the #notagainSU movement. One of their complaints was the speed and method of notification about racial bias incidents. In response to protests, the University created a system to record all bias incidents within 48 hours and a set of standards to determine which incidents trigger an email to the whole campus, according to syracuse.com.

Protests at Syracuse are ongoing and racial bias incidents and hate crimes continue to occur, according to The Daily Orange

Problems of communication around racial bias incidents and hate crimes between the student body and the administration have come to the forefront at Whitman as well. The Whitman administration aims to clarify the official response taken by the administration to racial bias incidents and hate crimes. 

The one thing that is clear to me from my conversations with the Whitman Community, is that there seems to be a lack of understanding about process. So we have to do a better job of communicating overall, not just in high alert times,” Witherspoon said.

“People deserve to be brought along in the process because they care deeply about the Whitman community, and that is apparent,” he added. “That’s why the WIDE [Whitman Inclusion, Diversity and Equity] Committee a few weeks ago met to discuss the process, the education needed in the community and the updates that we need to make on campus and to the website. So, we will be working to raise understanding, visibility, and engagement.”  

While improving communication with the campus community is necessary, more needs to be done, according to the letter of solidarity sent by the Borders as Methods advocacy club to BSU, WASA and the campus community on Feb. 22. 

“As Angela Davis told us all during her keynote, having ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ isn’t enough,” Borders as Methods said in the email. “We demand the administration take action against racism on campus and that this action does not continue to physically, emotionally and mentally harm students, faculty and staff of color.”