Editorial: Racism is alive and thriving

Published 9:20 am Monday, April 26, 2010

A racist Facebook conversation between two female University of Minnesota Duluth students was as galling and troubling as heartbreaking and frustrating.

At the sight of a black student entering the classroom, one of the women, according to news reports last week, typed to the other via their laptops, “ew-w-w a obabacare is in the room, i feel dirty, and unsafe. … keep a eye on all of your valuables and dont make direct eye contact.”

Anyone optimistic that we as a society had grown and had made strides during the past half century or so to beat back bigotry and to increase understanding had to feel an all-too-familiar sinking in the pit of the stomach. But it got worse. The second student replied not with disgust or reprimand but with amusement. The two then traded increasingly vulgar comments for a full 20 minutes.

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While they were supposed to be learning — maybe even a thing or two about grammar and punctuation — these students instead were spewing ignorance, perpetuating negative stereotypes and doing their small part to turn back, by decades, civil rights progress.

Encouragingly, the incident was reported to UMD’s Office of Equal Opportunity. Perhaps the two women forgot that conversations carried out on Facebook “walls” can be viewed by others. At least one of those others was offended and did the right thing by reporting the conversation. An investigation was promptly launched, and university vice chancellors immediately ripped out a faculty memo.

The memo, while prompt and appropriate, may not have gone far enough. It advised faculty to prepare for possible classroom discussions, but it didn’t encourage or call on key faculty or other university leaders to facilitate such obviously needed conversations. The memo did invite faculty members to a meeting this week, where, perhaps, educational and sensitivity sessions can be brainstormed and scheduled.

Perhaps the university can do what’s necessary, too, to update its policies for situations like this. UMD Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Support and Student Life Jackie Millslagle told a TV reporter the university doesn’t have set guidelines. It’s unfortunate something ugly has to happen before policies are updated or written. But good can come from bad — and always should.

“Comments represented racism, harassment, and perceived threat,” Millslagle and Vice Chancellor for Academic Administration Vince Magnuson wrote in the memo on the Facebook conversation. “This is a serious situation which will have impact on the campus climate.”

Whether that impact remains racist and ignorant or becomes an opportunity for enlightenment and education will be up to the university.

— Duluth News Tribune, April 20