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Alleged hate crime at San Jose State University is symptom of larger problem

It’s tempting to write off the recent report of a black San Jose State University student being tormented by his white roommates as an isolated problem. The reality is, however, it’s a symptom of a larger problem on campuses across the nation. 

Earlier this year, our nation marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington. It was the culmination of a movement marked by triumph and tragedy that stirred our nation to live up to its most fundamental ideals of equality.

We can take great pride in our nation’s progress since that historic day. But in the shadow of the movement, it’s hard to comprehend the ugly bigotry that recently erupted on the campus of San Jose State University. That’s where four white college students are accused of tormenting a black roommate with racial slurs, a Confederate flag and Nazi symbols over a period of three months. They reportedly even held him in a locked room and forced a bicycle lock around his neck.

It’s tempting to write off incidents like this as isolated problems – something the university and the community will address. After all, four students have been charged with hate crimes, and at least three of them have been suspended from school.

The reality is, however, that what happened at San Jose State University reaches far beyond this one campus. It’s a symptom of a larger problem on campuses across the nation.

At the University of Texas, a student group this week planned a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Game.”

At Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., two girls showed up at a sorority party in blackface this month. Another “blackface” incident involving a sorority girl occurred this fall at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.

And, in Maryland, a student at Towson University established a “White Student Union,” an organization that has been replicated on several other campuses. The founder has since been photographed sieg-heiling at a recent gathering of neo-Nazis and Klansmen, and has also started an umbrella group for white nationalist organizations that recruit young people into their ranks.

Bigotry and intolerance on campus often has consequences that go far beyond being offensive. FBI statistics indicate that about 10 percent of all hate crimes occur on school and college campuses. 

College and university officials need to take all such incidents of intolerance seriously from the moment they occur. 

But even at San Jose State, school officials were slow to act. Initially, two of the accused students were simply moved to a different residence hall, rather than being held immediately accountable. Although the victim was on record as being fearful of all of his roommates, school officials continued to allow one roommate to live with the student. And, it wasn’t until the district attorney brought charges against the students that any of them were suspended. 

It seems as if many of us want to dismiss such incidents as innocent pranks. We want easy explanations. We want to excuse ourselves from digging deeper and doing the hard work of addressing bigotry, racism and destructive ignorance. We want to believe that the civil rights movement of the 1960s somehow inoculated all but the fringe of American society from harboring such ugly prejudices.

That’s a fantasy in which we cannot afford to indulge.

We must confront this prejudice, especially when it occurs at a college or university. We must set an example to students that shows our society does not tolerate such bigotry. The civil rights movement may have occurred 50 years ago, but it is through our actions today that we keep its promise of equality alive.