Colleges and Universities See Increase in Hate Crimes
Jesse Davis and TerAndre Graham were only trying to cross the street. Heading for the home of a friend just off the campus of University of Kentucky last fall, the two students were set upon by some 10 white men.
The men rained racist curses on Graham, who is black, and choked him until he couldn't speak or move. Davis, who is white, was dealt a broken hand and nose amid cries of "nigger-lover."
"I definitely thought I was going to lose my life," Graham said later. Added Davis: "I didn't know that much hate existed."
Across the nation, colleges and universities are experiencing hate — both hate crimes and less drastic incidents of bias — first-hand. On and around the leafy campuses where America's "best and brightest" get their educations — places long assumed to be among the nation's most tolerant and broad-minded enclaves — violent racism and homophobia are becoming frighteningly commonplace.
"Hate is part of our culture," says Jack Levin, an expert on hate crime at Northeastern University in Boston. "So we shouldn't be surprised that some of the most conventional and brightest of our young people, those who attend colleges and universities, harbor these feelings of prejudice and bigotry."
Sometimes, it's hard not to be surprised.
At SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx, 21 Arab students flee after a series of assaults and incidents of racist harassment. At Brown University in Rhode Island, a black senior is beaten by three white students who tell her she is a "quota" who doesn't belong.
At the State University of New York at Binghamton, three students are charged in a racially motivated assault that left an Asian-American student with a fractured skull. A Harvard resident tutor quits after being subjected to homophobic vandalism. E-mail threats and slurs are sent to 30,000 students and faculty at Stanford University, along with others at many other schools.
Holocaust deniers publish their screeds in campus newspapers and, in a few cases, are backed up ideologically by professors like Arthur Butz (see The Professors) at Northwestern University.
The Tip of the Iceberg
Last fall, in the first such incident in years, two pipe bombs went off in men's rooms at historically black Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. After the first attack, an anonymous caller told a local television station that he wanted to "get rid of some of them niggers."
After the second attack, a caller to the same station said that blacks "got no business having a college where there ain't nobody ... smart enough to get a degree." A local white man was ultimately charged.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Almost weekly, new reports of hate crimes on college campuses make the headlines. The FBI, in its latest compilation of state hate crime statistics, reported about 250 campus incidents in 1998. But experts agree that that number almost certainly vastly underrepresents the real level of campus hate crimes.
Perhaps more startling than the absolute number is the fact such crimes represent 9% of the total number of hate crimes nationwide — a figure that makes campuses the third most common venue for hate crimes.
Far more common than hate crimes are campus "bias incidents" — events that do not rise to the level of prosecutable offenses but that may nevertheless poison the atmosphere at a college and lead to more serious trouble.
One academic journal, The Review of Higher Education, estimated recently that a total of 1 million bias incidents occur every year on American campuses — the vast majority of them unreported to campus authorities or police.
Howard Ehrlich of the Prejudice Institute, a long-time expert on "campus ethnoviolence," estimates 20% of students at most report bias and hate crime incidents to campus officials. And those officials, despite laws requiring them to report hate crimes to the federal government, often fail to do so, a 1998 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found.
"Universities are trying to recruit diverse student bodies," explains Raymond Winbush, director of Fisk University's Race Relations Institute, "and they don't want to publish this information because they think it would prevent many students from coming."
Indeed, so acute was this concern that last year, Skidmore College's dean of admissions seized 1,200 copies of the New York school's student newspaper just before an open house for prospective students. The newspaper's offense? It contained an article about feces being smeared on a lesbian student's automobile.
The stakes are high. Consider the case of the University of Missouri at St. Louis, which hosts a local National Public Radio station. When a Klan group tried to underwrite the NPR news show "All Things Considered," the school refused. After the Klan sued in 1998, school officials testified that they believed publicity linking the university to the Klan could cost $5 million a year in lost gifts and tuition.
Diversity as the Enemy
How is it that hate has become a campus fixture? Aren't American institutions of higher learning supposed to be bastions of open-mindedness? The Intelligence Report conducted scores of interviews, gathered key statistics and reviewed incidents at 140 campuses over the last two years to answer these and other questions.
If social psychology's "contact hypothesis" is correct — if encounters with people unlike oneself are the path to greater tolerance and understanding — today's students should be more accepting of difference than ever. In 1976, a decade after the height of the civil rights movement, 15.4% of U.S. college students were racial or ethnic minorities; by 1996, the latest figure available, 26.1% were. And gay and lesbian students have come out in record numbers in recent years.
For many students, this campus diversity clearly does open minds. But for some, many of whom grew up in racially monolithic suburbs, it slams them shut.
"As colleges and universities diversify, the transition from home to school can be extremely threatening," says Brian Levin, an expert on hate crime. "Students are finding themselves outside their homogenous element, dealing with diversity up close for the very first time. And some dig in and react against it."
In fact, it is often expressions of diversity that trigger hate and bias incidents on campus. Gay pride or black history month posters, for instance, often become message boards for hateful graffiti artists.
Events like a recent gay pride march at Texas A&M — where a male student shouted "Aggies, not Faggies" into the face of a marching female student — can spark deep resentment and even violence.
In the midst of national publicity about the 1998 attack on gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, students at a Colorado State University fraternity reacted. In a clear reference to Shepard, who was left to die while lashed to a rural cattle fence, frat members built a float featuring a scarecrow for a homecoming parade. Spray-painted on the effigy were the words "I'm Gay" and "Up My Ass."
Affirmative action and expressions of identity politics — black studies programs, for instance, or gay rights organizations — also play a part in many white students' resentment.
A recent E-mail to William Pierce, leader of the nation's leading neo-Nazi group, the National Alliance, reflects such feelings: "There are all kinds of groups here: a gay organization, a black student organization, far left-wing groups and an animal rights group and so on," wrote the anonymous post-doctoral student at an unnamed Ohio university.
"But if someone wanted to create an organization for Whites ... that posed the question: "What's wrong with a separation of the races," I am sure that person would be drummed out."
The sight of interracial friendship also can be enraging to some. Karl Nichols, a white residence hall director at the University of Mississippi, learned that first hand this spring.
Capping a series of anti-black incidents, two chunks of asphalt were hurled through Nichols' window — one of them attached to a note warning, "You're going to get it, you Godforsaken nigger-lover." The next night, someone tried to set Nichols' door on fire.
A school report on the incidents concluded that Nichols "may have violated racist taboos ... by openly displaying his affinity for African-American individuals and black culture, by dating black women, by playing [black] music ... and by promoting diversity" within his dormitory.