Racist, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Gay Graffiti at Oberlin: A Cruel Political Stunt

The perpetrators were reportedly out to elicit a reaction from campus liberals, with little regard for who they frightened.
oberlin campus.jpg

In March, when I wrote about racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay slurs that befouled the campus of Oberlin College, I encouraged the school to give understandably traumatized students all the support they needed, but argued that its decision to cancel classes for a day was a mistake. Whether the perpetrator is "a racist, or a cruel provocateur, or someone carrying out an ill-conceived hoax," I wrote, this gives them what they sought: attention and the ability to disrupt learning.

It turns out skepticism was warranted.

The Daily Caller, National Review, and Legal Insurrection are all reporting that the material's appearance on campus was "a hoax." A police report has one of the perpetrators saying "I'm doing it as a joke to see the college overreact," and admitting that he made a Nazi flag "as a joke to troll people." I don't know if "hoax" is the right word here, but the apparent consensus is that the perpetrator is not in fact an ideological racist -- the incidents were reportedly carried out "for the purpose of getting a reaction on campus, not because they believed the hostile messages."

The descriptor "cruel provocateur" seems right to me.

When incidents like this happen, it's worth bearing in mind that the motivation of someone who puts Nazi paraphernalia or the n-word or anti-gay slurs on campus doesn't affect how Jews, blacks, gays, and all folks horrified by bigotry experience the incidents. There are students who've never lived far away from home, or in a mostly white community, or as an out gay person. Many understandably feel targeted, or hated, or afraid, or angry, or violated, or a mix of those.

Creating that atmosphere is abhorrent.

Michelle Malkin, who seems very angry at Oberlin College for having been fooled, says in her writeup that when the incidents happened, "liberal grievance-mongers applauded the administration's decision to shut down classes. Faculty, students, and opportunists took to the airwaves and the Internet to bemoan 'white privilege,' institutional bigotry, lack of diversity, yada, yada, yada."

As noted, I also thought the decision to cancel classes was mistaken, and it never made sense to label an unknown actor's institutionally condemned acts as "institutional bigotry," but white privilege? White kids spreading the n-word and Nazi flags around campus for kicks, without giving a damn how many minorities they scare or upset, does seem like a great example of white privilege!

Professor William A. Jacobson of Cornell Law School writes, "School officials and local police knew the identity of the culprits, who were responsible for most if not all of such incidents on campus, yet remained silent as the campus reacted as if the incidents were real." If true, that's shameful. But again, I don't know that "reacted as if the incidents were real" is the right way to phrase it. The incidents were real. Offensive material was in fact strewn about. The way I'd put it is that Oberlin students had a right to know that the perpetrators weren't motivated by Nazi or KKK ideology.

Many feared they were -- and for that reason, they did as much damage as actual neo-Nazis or KKK members would have. So it goes with all people who fake or mimic hate crimes: the ripples of fear and hurt are exactly commensurate with what would be generated by an actual hate crime. Malkin may be right that the perpetrators were motivated more by "juvenile delinquency and perverse self-delusion" than "hate." But they thought so little of their black, gay and Jewish classmates that they exploited racial and ethnic anxiety around their groups for selfish ends.

That is itself a kind of bigotry.

The advice I offered Oberlin in the spring holds up pretty well: "Ideally, Oberlin could show unmistakable support for its students -- the ones who feel victimized and the ones who don't want to be made to feel like victims -- and at the same time, signal to racist provocateurs that no, they cannot cause a spectacle." It's disappointing that the college didn't handle the matter better.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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