As many in the UCLA community are now aware, the door to students’ off-campus apartment was vandalized with anti-Mexican and sexist messages on the morning of Monday, February 27. As tragic as this isolated event was, it is more illustrative of the broader campus climate on one hand, and, on the other, the complete inability of campus and system administrators to effectively address these situations and ensure the safety of their female students and students of color.
Before looking at the Daily Bruin editorial penned by Christine Mata, Assistant Dean of Students for Campus Climate, it’s important to rewind several years and place this event in the proper context.
The weekend of February 13, 2010, the Pi Kappa Alpha chapter at UC San Diego hosted a theme party intended to mock Black History Month, titled the “Compton Cookout.” The theme, if not immediately obvious by the name, was to caricature black culture, serving “chicken, coolade, and of course Watermelon,” and encouraging female attendees to dress and act like “ghetto bitches.” Within just a few days of the party, which black students—who constitute just 2% of a campus that is 70% non-white—protested, students on a student government-owned television station ridiculed the protests, going so far as to call the black students “ungrateful n—–s”—yes, the actual n-word, and on live television. On the 24th, UCSD Chancellor Fox planned a teach-in to discuss the racist events on campus and regain the trust of the student body, after allowing the events to spiral out of control. Reportedly 1200 students attended the teach-in before walking out en masse to do their own teach-out, leaving only a handful of administrators and loyal faculty to continue listening to Fox’s speech—which she continued even after the students left. Angus Johnson, a CUNY History professor who wrote frequently on the student protests nationally and internationally during the 2009/10 school year, wrote:
I don’t get it. Your campus is in crisis. Your students are in crisis. And your students are taking the lead in forging a response to that crisis. They’re voting with their voices and with their feet, saying that they want to discuss the situation in their own venue, on their own terms. They’re having that discussion right now, right outside the room in which you’re sitting. And you don’t follow them? You don’t join them? You don’t seize this extraordinary opportunity to watch and listen and learn?
Now, it seems like this should have been the sad conclusion to this incident. Except that it wasn’t. The night of the 25th—less than two weeks following the “Compton Cookout” party—a noose was found hanging in Geisel Library at UCSD. Students began a sit-in the next day at Chancellor Fox’s office, with UCLA students sitting in at Murphy Hall in solidarity. Throughout the day, rumors surfaced that a second noose had been found, though UCPD refused to confirm this, and calls were made to the student paper that more nooses would be hung around campus. UCSD students set a 5pm deadline for the administration to meet their demands, with about 100 students willing to risk arrest. The administration finally issued a bogus response letter which set no firm commitments to change the campus climate; however, student leaders convinced the crowd of angry students to leave the office with promises of future action, but no significant actions followed.
Earlier that same month, at UC Irvine, 11 students—8 from UCI and 3 from UC Riverside—were arrested for heckling a university-sponsored talk by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. In previous years, Zionist community members have heckled speakers brought in by the Muslim Student Union, including Green Party Presidential candidate and former House Representative Cynthia McKinney, while armed UCPD watched on. At one point, a mock separation wall erected, with permits, by a student organization preceding the MSU was burned down to the ground—again, as police watched. In another incident, a plainclothes FBI agent drove a car through a crowd of pro-Palestinian students—once more, as UCPD officers watched on. Barely a year after the 11 students were arrested, and while they and 19 other UCI students were facing criminal charges for protesting on campus, it was revealed that UC Student Regent and UCI student Jesse Cheng had been arrested for attempted rape. UCI administrators, even the campus assault resource center (CARE), circled wagons around Cheng; one administrator approached female students with the Justice For Laya Campaign protesting outside the administration building, asking “why are you doing this to him?” The CARE Director even tried to prevent Justice For Laya organizers from distributing any literature about Cheng at the campus Take Back the Night event. Eventually, bowing to student pressure, the Student Conduct Office found Cheng guilty of “unwanted touching,” and sentenced Cheng to disciplinary probation, which wouldn’t go into effect until after he graduated. This was just a slap on the wrist compared to the charges and sentences received by dozens of UCI students—primarily black, Latin@, and Middle Eastern—whose only “crime” was protesting, and the banning of the Muslim Student Union for the organization’s dubious role in the Michael Oren protest. Ultimately, as the Occupy UCI blog noted, the “conviction” of Cheng was intended to serve two functions: 1) to placate angry students, who demanded Cheng’s resignation and genuine concern from administrators, and 2) to validate and legitimize the use of Student Conduct charges against activists. It should come as no surprise that institutional racism coalesced with institutional sexism/patriarchy, just as this most recent event at UCLA combined individual racism and sexism.
Barely 9 months after the Compton Cookout, and around the same time as the campaign against Jesse Cheng, ANOTHER racist and sexist party surfaced, this time at UCI. Instead of targeting black students, though, this party went after native students, with a “Pilgrims and Indians” party, with flyers featuring silhouettes of scantily-clad women with feathers in their hair. And, following the pattern that is becoming all too obvious and infuriating, the UCI administration did nothing to hold event organizers accountable or make students on campus feel included. While black students at UCSD make up only 2% of the student population there, American Indian students make up a miniscule 0.01% of the UCI student body. Furthermore, at the time, there was not a single American Indian professor on campus, nor were there any courses about the indigenous population; only a handful of students outside of the American Indian Student Association knew that the land UCI is located on once belonged to the Acagchemem prior to colonization.
And then, in March 2011, a UCLA undergraduate gained notoriety for releasing a video on YouTube, titled “Asians in the Library,” where she complains that Asian students disrupt her frequent “epiphanies” by loudly saying things like “Oh ching chong ling long ting tong, ooohh.” However, UCLA administrators declined to punish her in any way, and—amazingly—were more concerned with the criticisms of her video than the impact of the video itself on the Asian-American student population, and students of color on campus more generally. While Chancellor Block offered a token condemnation of the video, UCLA spokesperson Phil Hampton stated that “right now, the campus is focused on ensuring [the student's] well-being so she can complete her finals.”
Finally, then, we can return to the most recent incident at UCLA, and the response by Mata. The Assistant Dean for Campus Climate position, created eight months ago, has been Chancellor Block’s most meaningful gesture towards addressing diversity and racism on campus; but Mata’s letter demonstrates just what an empty gesture it is, and really the lack of commitment from the UCLA administration to increasing diversity on campus and ensuring the safety and security of students of color.
Two quotes from Mata’s article emphasize this point:
“This incident was not the first of its kind but it presents the opportunity for us to engage in dialogue and identify how we can become agents of change toward making it the last time we see such hate against members of our community.”
“Combating bias begins with each of ourselves on the individual level.”
Both of these statements, representative of the rest of the article, point to two related goals of the administrative response:
1) To make this a definite incident, not something that is part of a long pattern of racism and sexism on UC campuses, as described at length here, or, more importantly, part of a larger structure of racism and sexism—or to put it another way, white supremacy and patriarchy, both of which intersect in much more profound and oppressive ways than the compound slurs written on the apartment door. If this event were to be linked to past events, students might question why President Yudof and Chancellor Block, and their administrations, have allowed this to happen over and over.
2) To make this a question of just individual action, rather than a product of systematic and institutional phenomena. An individual issue—in this case, “bias”—can supposedly be solved through greater understanding and increased dialogue; but a systemic or institutional issue requires controversial and scrutinizable action by the administration, and likely the loss of power and privilege by already powerful and privileged groups—Block’s constituency. This constituency is made up of the white super-majority in the administration, the white super-majority in the faculty, and the white middle and upper class in the student body. The appeals to “dialogue” and combating “bias” also assumes a symmetry of power between the oppressor and the oppressed that can only exist in a rhetorical situation decoupled from persistent systems of oppression and racial violence; but in the real world, where some groups and people hold structural power over others, such attempts at dialogue are meaningless.
An article by the Daily Bruin editorial board follows this campaign of distancing, individualizing, and emphasizing dialogue over systemic change in its closing call to “Join the conversation. Keep up the discussion. That’s only the first step, but it’s in the right direction.” However, a look at the demands issued by students demonstrate the very low level of accommodation that has been denied students of color at UCLA:
1) Adoption of a UCLA diversity requirement
2) UCPD accountability to students
3) Formal response from Chancellor Block condemning these actions
4) Formal apology from ASUCLA (regarding a separate incident)
5) Support for growth of Ethnic Studies at UCLA
6) Creation of a campus multicultural center
7) Greater diversity within administration and the student body
Aside from the apology from ASUCLA and possibly a statement from Chancellor Block, it seems likely that the first of these demands to be met will be greater diversity in the administration.
The emphasis on policing as a solution—i.e. treating this particular incident as a matter of law and order—raised in the editorial board article and in similar articles elsewhere again removes culpability from the administration; but it also provides a stark irony given the relationship of police to communities of color. If we look at another incident on campus—when UCPD beat, tased, and arrested students, again primarily students of color, protesting a 32% tuition increase in November 2009 outside Covel Commons, then it should be absolutely clear that police will never be able to eradicate racism, and their very involvement in this case likely will further entrench institutionalized racism.
Given this long history of inadequate responses, decreasing enrollment of students of color, and lack of resources and support structures for those students who are able to attend, it’s important that we recognize that this administration is not designed to meet the needs of students, only placate when necessary. Instead, we need to start organizing ourselves to build the support structures and create the campus climate that we need, while increasing pressure on the administration to be accountable and serve us.
Since writing this, I came across an email sent from UC President Mark Yudof to all UC students earlier today, which again emphasized Yudof’s trademark appeals to “civility” and “discourse,” this time ignoring the constant violent response to protesters seeking to engage in discourse with UC officials and the Regents; nor does he condemn the racist vandalism at UCLA. Instead, his objection is to students engaging in political dissent against paid representatives of the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces; statements like “It is an action meant to deny others their right to free speech” seemingly apply only to criticism of Israel, not protests of campus policy. Never mind that heckling—up until the Irvine 11 arrests—has been considered a common, albeit occasionally unpopular, form of protest (See Occupy UCI for a long list of past heckling which never resulted in arrest). Similarly, racial and sexist slurs seem to be accepted as “free speech,” while dissent against a foreign government’s agents, brought to campus with official university sponsorship, to sell that government’s policies… well, that’s a crime. Another paragraph from Yudof’s email heightens his own bias for Zionist students (a political identity, not a religious one):
“Among other initiatives, the system’s central office has worked with the campuses and various groups, including students, to revise policies on student conduct; the new provisions strengthen prohibitions on threatening conduct and acts motivated by bias, including religious bias. We also are working with the Museum of Tolerance and the Anti-Defamation League to improve campus climate for all students and to take full advantage of our marvelous diversity.”
Is this same effort being made for black, Latin@, Muslim, or Asian students? NO. These students do not fall under his category of “all students,” otherwise they would have their concerns taken seriously. Now, this is not to say that Jewish students should not have the right to feel safe on campus; they do, the same as everyone else, and the incidents of swastikas being drawn on doors is just as reprehensible as what was directed against black students at UCSD, American Indian students at UCI, and Asian and Mexican students at UCLA. But to equate politicized disruptions of speeches by Israeli officials with racist attacks against Jewish students, while ignoring (with only passing reference to) similar attacks on all other students of color, emphasizes a desired demography for the UC system that is as hypocritical as it is racist in its own right.
The continuing appeals to “civility” are meant less to encourage open discourse–since this arguably doesn’t exist in the UC, judging by the actions of the UCPD–and more to invoke archetypes of “the barbarian,” the opposite of “civility” and “the civilized,” which have classically been used to otherize, marginalize, and derationalize primarily Arabs, but also Africans and indigenous Americans (both American Indians and Latin Americans). Thus, these appeals to civility, revived every time UC students protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine, are clearly intended to divide the student body into groups of “desirables” and “undesirables,” with the safety and speech of the former defended at any cost, and that of the latter discardable and acknowledged only to prevent their revolt.