Series of Racial Incidents a ‘Rude Awakening’ at University of Virginia
Barely a week into the start of classes at the University of Virginia, a string of racial incidents has jarred the campus and cast a shadow over initiatives to combat racism at the school.
There have been five separate racial incidents in the past two weeks, including menacing messages scrawled on doors and ethnic slurs shouted from passing cars.
In response, more than 250 students gathered on campus last weekend to denounce the hate crimes, and some students have suggested making hate speech a violation of the campus honor code.
“The writer of the spiteful words and the passing motorist who shouts an insult have no place in a community built on mutual trust and respect,” university President John Casteen III wrote in a statement e-mailed to students and staff.
Charlottesville and university police are investigating the five incidents, the first reported Aug. 20, school spokeswoman Carol Wood said this week.
Wood said people drove by the first-year dormitories and yelled out racial slurs during the first weekend of school. Police believe three such incidents occurred, she said. It’s unclear whether the drivers were students. They used a common anti-Black slur, Wood said.
Days later, a group of Black students reported the same slur scrawled outside their off-campus apartment. Another student reported a similar incident this past weekend.
“For the new students, this is a very rude awakening to societal problems that are everywhere, including the University of Virginia,” said Noah Sullivan, a student organizer of this weekend’s meeting. “For older students, this is nothing new.”
Police have yet to charge anyone in the incidents.
Integrated in 1955, U.Va. still fights a lingering reputation as a White, Southern stronghold. In 2002, two White Virginia students dressed up as Black women at a Halloween party, and in 2003 a biracial student council hopeful and a Peruvian business student were attacked.
Administrators responded with a campus diversity committee. Last fall, the committee recommended the creation of an officer of diversity and equity; an appointment is expected by next month.
A streamlined process for reporting incidents is expected to be in place this fall as are school-by-school reviews of diversity initiatives.
Wood said school officials are encouraging students to report racial incidents whether directed at them or someone they know, and they are giving newcomers a frank talk during orientation.
About 10 percent of the school’s roughly 13,000 undergraduates are Black.
“We try to prepare our students that this could happen,” she said, “because it has happened before.”
But Phil Jackson still was unprepared for what he found early Saturday morning. That’s when the fourth-year student said he discovered “I hate Jesus” and an ethnic slur on a dry-erase board outside his campus dorm room.
“I didn’t think it was something that would happen,” he said. “I don’t think anyone should ever really get used to the disappointment or the frustration of individuals who don’t embrace diversity.”
Because racial epithets involve issues of free speech, Wood said such language has not been considered a violation of the honor code — the university’s student-run system that punishes lying, cheating or stealing with expulsion.
That could change.
“There was discussion this weekend (of) should this be an honor offense,” Wood said. “We’re not going to stand for this.”
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