There is nothing new about college students behaving badly, particularly in ways that might be racially or culturally offensive. Recent headlines are replete with instances of fraternities participating in racially insensitive theme parties and the fallout from those events. In the age of social media, the ability to post photos or videos of such conduct amplifies the offensive behavior to a much larger audience especially when these stories make national news.
In January 2016, 14 cadets at the Citadel were punished after publishing photos of themselves wearing white pillowcases on their heads which resembled hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan. In November 2015, the president of the University of Missouri resigned after a series of racial incidents on campus led African-American football players to threaten to boycott a pending football game. And just this month, students from the College of Charleston posted a video to social media documenting their mockery of slavery and black people during school-sponsored field trip the Francis Marion National Forest.
The incident sparked a campus protest, where CofC students of all races, but black students in particular, voiced their dissatisfaction with the racial climate on campus and questioned the administration’s commitment to fostering a racially inclusive climate. Regardless of what action it takes, the College’s handling of this incident will send a powerful message on how it may deal with similar incidents in the future.
A new president will take over in Randolph Hall in the coming weeks. If the administration truly wishes to discourage this type of behavior by students, it should punish the perpetrators of this incident firmly and send the clear message that behavior of this type will not be tolerated at the College of Charleston.
What the protests following the video revealed (once again) is that each instance of racial insensitivity sends a subtle message to minorities on campus that they are not welcome. The institution’s official response to such conduct, by definition, either endorses or condemns such conduct. The question for the College of Charleston administration is, “What message does it want to send to the community about its tolerance for racially insensitive behavior?”
The right to free speech generally guarantees college students the right to express themselves, even with hateful or insensitive rhetoric. But most colleges and universities require students accept and abide by a code of conduct while enrolled as part of the student body. This gives the institution the right to punish offending students for engaging in behavior which negatively affects other students or adversely affects the college community in general.
The College of Charleston students in the current controversy compounded their misdeeds by posting the video of their comments on social media, placing it in the public realm. This conscious decision to broadcast their views to a wider audience makes their actions a disciplinary concern, particularly given the College of Charleston’s relatively poor history regarding diversity.
The College of Charleston is not alone in its slow embrace of diversity or in having difficulty establishing an inclusive environment for students of color. For many colleges and universities, but especially in the South, it took legal action and even the presence of federal troops before black students were permitted to enroll. Such was the case with James Meredith and the University of Mississippi. From the time after Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools and into the Civil Rights movement, it was common for mobs of students and parents to picket outside of a school, yelling racial epithets as black Americans were initially breaking those color barriers.
The racist language used by segregationists may have become less confrontational and vitriolic since then, but the same message can easily be conveyed in more subtle ways. Incidents involving hood-wearing Citadel cadets or racially offensive College of Charleston students ridicule and demean minority students, who in turn feel even less welcome.
For the sake of all students at the College of Charleston, the new administration should send a strong message that such conduct will be severely punished. If they do not, racially divisive incidents like these will continue and any hope for a diverse, inclusive, and any hope for a diverse, inlclusive, and welcoming campus will remain unrealized.
Dwayne Green is a former city attorney from Charleston who focuses on litigation, municipal, and zoning issues.