On March 4 Oberlin College in Ohio, which has always had an outsized role in the history of Black higher education, cancelled classes for a day and instead held a “Day of Solidarity” in response to a month-long series of hate speech being scrawled on various buildings, doors, and posters throughout the campus.
The words of hate were directed at Black, gay, and Jewish students, and students of Asian descent. According to Oberlin College officials, swastikas were drawn on some buildings and walls, “nigger” was written on some Black History Month posters, a note with the words “nigger + faggot center” was found in the college’s Multicultural Resource Center.
College officials said they made the decision to cancel classes for a day after a person wearing clothing – a robe and hood – that appeared to be similar to Ku Klux Klan garb was seen early that morning near the college’s Afrikan Heritage House. The action was taken, according to a statement released by the college, in order to undertake “a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks.”
Some, however, disagreed with the college’s cancelling of classes. For example, John S. Wilson, in a widely-circulated essay, criticized the decision. He said that it sent students the wrong message.
“By canceling classes and generally overreacting – let’s face it, racism and baseless discriminatory scrawls on posters and walls will never go away – Oberlin is only sheltering students instead of assisting them to overcome adversity, an action that would truly fortify their character,” Wilson wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.com. “What example does this set for students, many of whom will soon be in the workforce? If a supervisor or co-worker offends them, who will be there then to host their day of solidarity?”
Wilson is wrong to describe Oberlin day of solidarity as meaningless, or even harmful.
Oberlin’s founding in the 1830s as a progressive institution led it to almost immediately begin regularly enrolling African Americans. So, in historical terms, Oberlin had a special duty to stop for a day its “normal” conduct of business and re-affirm its principles of tolerance.
That’s the Oberlin-centric context justifying a day of solidarity.
The broader scope takes in what is happening in the country at large – which was reflected in the very breadth of the hate-speech attacks at Oberlin itself.
Nor have such attacks been limited to furtive scrawls by persons unknown. We’ve seen them on placards carried at conservative political rallies. We’ve heard them from conservative politicians in high and low places. We’ve read them in scurrilous e-mails denigrating President Obama and the First Family.
The nation is changing; and there are, still, some significant number of people who don’t like the fact that all sorts of Americans who once had to be content with second-class status are now surging to claim their full-citizenship rights, their freedom.
As for Wilson’s worry that Oberlin’s “day of solidarity” will make students less able to deal with the discrimination they’ll face in the workforce, I say look to the Black college graduates of predominantly White colleges of the past 40 or so years. Many of them endured similar experiences during their undergraduate years. Many of them took part in “days of solidarity” or the like against such actions.
I think very few of them, if any, would say their ability to cope with the discrimination they subsequently found in the workplace was weakened by studying at an early age the various ways one can respond positively to acts of bigotry.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City.