Last month the campus of University of Maryland at College Park was rocked when an inflammatory email sent by Kappa Sigma Fraternity member A.J. Hurwitz became public.
In the email, Hurwitz used racial slurs to refer to African-American and Asian women, urging the fraternity to exclude them from parties. He also urged fraternity members to disregard consent when seeking sex during rush week. These words shocked the campus community, but what was even more shocking is that instead of holding Hurwitz or Kappa Sigma accountable, on April 1, university President Wallace Loh told students to “rise above odious words” and announced that the University of Maryland’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct had concluded its investigation. Its finding? That the email did not violate university policies and is speech protected by the First Amendment.
The university must think we’re some April Fools.
Racist incidents at U.S. universities have been in the news a lot lately. Five days before Hurwitz’s email surfaced at Maryland, a different racist fraternity faux pas was revealed: Members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma chanted on video that they would never accept a “n—ger” in their fraternity, preferring to lynch one instead. In response, University of Oklahoma President David Boren disbanded the fraternity and expelled two students, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination by agencies that receive federal funds and forbids the creation of a “racially hostile environment” in schools.
Then, last week, Bucknell University President John Bravman expelled three students over a campus radio broadcast during which they made racist comments and used a slur. Bravman explained, “Their conduct is an affront to our values, damaging to our community and in clear violation of our community standards.” And last Friday, Harris Pastides, the president of the University of South Carolina, suspended a student after a photo showing her writing on a white board with a racial slur on it went viral on social media.
Discipline was necessary and was meted out in these cases, but what made Hurwitz, Kappa Sigma and the University of Maryland different? Why was an email filled with hate and threats of sexual assault protected speech, and what is being protected other than the privilege of white males on Maryland’s campus to verbally attack women and minorities with impunity?
University of Maryland President Loh has called the email episode a “teachable moment,” but with this free pass, he has taught the entire campus community what students of color and women have known for far too long: The safety and well-being of students of color and women is not a priority on this campus. The university is passive toward racist and sexist rhetoric, potentially creating a hostile environment. And the university gives white male students the exclusive privilege to freely hate and to freely threaten rape.
I feel that this dramatically threatens me and other students on campus. We came here to learn, but now we have to repudiate the bigotry of Hurwitz without meaningful assistance from the university. The university expects us to cope amicably with racism and the threat of rape, but in the bigger picture, if such rhetoric goes unchecked, the University of Maryland is providing reasons for second thoughts: to students regarding their safety, to prospective students about attending this university at all, to alumni about contributing and to corporations about partnering—all of this while making bigots, sexists and prospective sex offenders feel right at home. The university is effectively reneging on its supposed commitments to diversity, inclusion, civil rights and student safety.
The United States is trying to become a more tolerant, progressive and inclusive society, and allowing unchecked racist speech and rhetoric that promotes violence on campus stunts our growth as a country because this hate speech has a real impact: Students do experience racial discrimination, and women are raped. Allowing this to go unpunished and simply forgiving the perpetrator betrays and ignores the history of racial violence and suppression in this country and completely drops the ball on the real threat of sexual assault on U.S. campuses. Ignoring racism and sexism will not eradicate them.
Let’s face it.
Colin Byrd was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Prince George’s County, Md. He is chairman of the Black Student Union’s Social Advocacy Committee at the University of Maryland. In the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, Byrd co-organized a march on Washington, #OccupyStamp, and a vigil celebrating universal liberties. He also played an instrumental role in the development and passage of a bill by the school’s Student Government Association to establish a board that would advise the University of Maryland Police Department on policy matters. He is also a second-generation Terrapin: His father graduated from the university.