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Hate Crimes Increase on College Campuses

April 14, 2010 03:35 PM
by Colleen Brondou
In the last year, campus officials have seen a rise in campus hate crimes. Is the current political climate to blame, or do campus speech restrictions need to be reexamined?

Campus Life in “Post-Racial” America

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From a white fraternity’s “ghetto-themed ‘Compton Cookout’” during Black History Month at the University of California, San Diego, to a threat of lynching at St. Louis University to a swastika carved on a wall near a Jewish studies center at the University of Miami, there seems to be an increase in campus hate incidents across the country.

According to Tim Barker, writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “campus and diversity experts say they have seen a surge in the last year, poking yet another hole in what increasingly appears to be the myth of a postracial America.”

Coming up with a hard figure on how much hate crime is taking place on college campuses is difficult to do. Barker reports that according to Justice Department data, 12 percent of hate crimes take place on college or school campuses but the numbers don’t show how much occurs on university campuses. Experts also suggest that many racial or sexual incidents aren’t reported.

Still, “[a]t least anecdotally, there seems to have been an increase,” Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, suggests. “But we don’t know for certain because reporting is so bad.”

Campuses Reflect Climate of Society

Darnell Cole, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California who studies diversity, thinks campuses everywhere in the United States could have incidents like these at any time. Why the perceived increase?

“Cole and others see a correlation between a rise in campus hate crimes and the increasingly nasty exchanges taking place among our nation's politicians and leaders—on both sides of the political spectrum,” Barker writes. “It would be naive, they say, to not expect that discord to show up on campuses.”

After a spate of incidents at California universities recently, Juanita Hall, senior director of multicultural and international programs at California Lutheran University, also pointed to society as an explanation.

“A university campus is a microcosm of society,” she told Jean Cowden Moore of the Ventura County Star. “When you bring people together from diverse backgrounds and ask them to live together, you’re bound to have different attitudes. Students are in the process of learning to live in a diverse and multicultural society, and part of that process is making mistakes.”

Campus Hate Crime or Simply Free Speech?

Certainly, not all hateful incidents rise to the level of hate crimes. But even hateful words can make their mark and leave targeted students feeling fearful.

According to Cowden Moore, educators believe that a “deterioration of civility in today’s society,” most notably in the recent health care debate, has had an affect on how students treat each other. “College students have grown up in an era where political discourse is marked by shouting and name-calling, so they may see lashing out as somehow acceptable, educators said,” according to Cowden Moore.

Others point to unchecked free speech as the culprit. Rabbi Aron Hier, director of campus outreach for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, suggests that administrators haven’t enforced codes of conduct on campuses.

“This grew out of a context where people have been saying hateful things for a long time, and it’s gone unchecked,” Hier told Cowden Moore. “If this is what free speech can do, it’s going to lead to violence.”

But Greg Lukianoff, writing for Reason Magazine, argues that campus political correctness and campus speech codes amount to censorship and “administrative bullying.” As president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Lukianoff believes “[t]hese codes not only chill free expression by warning students of serious consequences for controversial speech—or even normal, everyday speech—but they also systematically miseducate kids to believe that free speech goes only as far as the most sensitive person in the room can handle.”

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