When University of Wisconsin–Madison freshman Launa Owens reported that someone slipped a racist note underneath her dorm room door last month, one of the first things university officials did was explore the possibility that Owens created the note herself.
That’s according to Owens, who accuses the university of being more concerned with the prospect of the incident being a hoax than with the well-being of any potential victims.
“When these types of things occur on campus, there is always a push that it didn’t happen and it was a hoax,” Owens told Diverse via social media. “The first response is to always question [if] it’s legit, not to see if they are OK and what could be done to help them.”
Owens says she was “harassed” by a UW staffer who wanted to take fingerprints of “everyone who touched the note (and by that time many people touched it) to make sure that we weren’t lying.”
“I asked her why she would think that, and [she] said that there could be a possibility and wanted to make sure because she didn’t want more damage happening to the university,” Owens said. “I left out of frustration because she was more concerned about the University than what had happened.”
The incident purportedly involved a note that stated: “You fuck with Bucky. You fuck with us. Fuck you nigger bitch.” Owens has said she believed the note was in response to a recent protest in which she and other students were photographed holding a banner that portrayed the school’s mascot — Bucky Badger — as a Ku Klux Klansman.
While Owens — who withdrew for the semester — complains that she was wrongly viewed as a potential suspect in the incident, a review of recent events shows there is good cause for university officials to explore the hoax scenario when it comes to investigating allegations of racism.
The incident spurred a social media campaign under the hashtag #DefendBlackGirlsUAlbany that garnered national attention.
But the women’s allegations ended up being false, according to investigators, and now the women are charged with assault themselves after a review of a surveillance video on the bus showed the women attacking other riders. The students are also charged with making a false report.
Two of the students — Ariel Agudio and Asha Burwell, both 20 — have been dismissed from the university and student Alexis Briggs has been suspended for two years, according to the Albany Times Union, citing an email from SUNY at Albany President Robert J. Jones.
A few weeks later, prosecutors alleged that the racist death threat tweets actually came from Kayla-Simone McKelvey, a recent Black graduate who was involved in the campus protest.
According to news reports, McKelvey had “left the rally midway through and walked to a computer station located in a university library. Once there, McKelvey allegedly created an anonymous Twitter account and began posting racially charged threats of violence against Black Kean students. After making the posts, McKelvey immediately returned to the rally and attempted to spread awareness of the threats she allegedly had just fabricated.”
McKelvey has since pleaded guilty to a single count of third degree creating a false public alarm and faces up to 90 days in jail and an $82,000 fine.
The image, found on a whiteboard in the Blackwell Library, portrayed a stick figure being hung and labeled with a racial slur. The hashtag “#whitepower” had been written underneath.
Similar incidents are tracked at a website called fakehatecrimes.org.
The site is meant to serve as a “comprehensive database of the false reports of ‘hate crimes’ committed in the USA.”
The site says it builds on the work of Laird Wilcox, whose 1994 book Crying Wolf is said to be “the only book dedicated to this subject so far.”
Though the book predates the social media age, some of its passages bear relevance to a few of the incidents that have taken place on American campuses as of late.
“It’s no great surprise that a bright, socially conscious individual would realize quite on his or her own that there’s nothing like some racist graffiti or some other ‘hate crime’ to invigorate the militants, and what the hell, it’s for a good cause — right?” Wilcox states in the foreword of the book.
“Consider a college campus boiling with racial and gender sensitivity, with courses in victimization, organizations for victims, a constant barrage of victimization propaganda — but no immediate and palpable victims,” Wilcox continued. “‘Anti-racist’ vigilantes with no racists (or misogynists and homophobes) to hang had better get busy and make some, and as we see, they often do.”
Nolan L. Cabrera, an assistant professor of education policy studies and practices at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, said there are a number of reasons people are drawn to fabricate incidents. Those motives range from frustration with institutional inertia to boredom, he said.
But he said such incidents should not serve as a reason for campus administrators to avoid confronting issues of race.
“I have difficulty assessing the harm done by these incidents because frequently higher education administrators will resort to, ‘I would totally support your cause, but there are so many fabricated incidents that I am not sure what is true or not,’” Cabrera said in an email to Diverse. “Usually, these views are espoused by people who were not supportive of diversity in the first place and this becomes an excuse to avoid the issue.”
Cabrera said he is less concerned with sending a strong message to people who cry wolf because “they are always going to be there.”
“Rather, I think the strong message needs to be sent to higher education administrators that, even when an issue is fabricated, they need to maintain a commitment to creating inclusive campuses,” Cabrera said. “That is, they should not and cannot use one hoax as an excuse for ignoring the difficult and often messy work of fostering positive campus climates.”
Apparently, UW Madison intends to tackle the problem head on.
UW Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank has directed the campus to engage in a number of other actions in reaction to the Bucky incident and other recent incidents, according to UW Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone.
The actions include:
As for the Bucky incident at Madison, it remains unsolved.
“Although a perpetrator has not been identified at this time, it is possible that additional information will emerge that will allow further action to be taken,” said McGlone, who said the affected students in the case were provided support.
McGlone also said none of the affected students filed a formal police report.
Owens said she didn’t pursue police action because she hasn’t had good experiences with the police handing cases, “especially ones that are sensitive.”
“I can’t keep on convincing people that it really happened, and it really did happen, it is just too taxing,” Owens said. She called a reporter’s attention to stories associated with #TheRealUW on social media.
In relation to those stories, she said: “The note really isn’t a far stretch.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.