In Dubois Hall this past Friday evening, a SUNY New Paltz student saw a message written on a whiteboard which read “Emmett Till deserved to die.” The student then took a photo and uploaded it to Facebook.
After the sign had been posted on Friday, SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian and the University Police Department (UPD) were notified of the incident on Sunday, and an investigation was launched Monday morning. UPD sent an email Tuesday afternoon to the campus community acknowledging the event and the investigation underway. Christian sent a follow-up email Wednesday afternoon.
This posting is one of several hateful signs posted on our campus in the past two years. In that time, we have witnessed signs that demean our classmates and professors and have made too many of us feel unsafe on a campus where we value and preach diversity and acceptance.
Educational institutions are meant to be places where we not only come to learn and improve ourselves, but they are also supposed to be places we look to for safety. It is simply unacceptable that in the past two years, we have made anyone here feel unsafe at any given time.
We at The New Paltz Oracle are concerned that administration and UPD’s responses to these incidents have become increasingly sluggish over time and, when an incident targeting a marginalized group on campus does garner a response, we hope it is for the right reasons.
Also within that time, we’ve noticed a change in our administration. When the first racial sign was posted in 2011, it took President Christian less than 24 hours to send an email to the campus community which illustrated how seriously the administration was taking the situation. When the second “racially offensive” post appeared two days after the first and similar graffiti was posted on Nov. 11 and Nov. 13. Christian responsed by Nov. 16, with an email that again stressed how deplorable and disgusting these signs were, and still are, while also updating students on the investigation.
Earlier in 2013, when someone vandalized the “Shango Parking” sign to “Django Parking,” there was no response from the President’s Office. When the most recent signage was discovered, it took UPD two days to respond after it was reported, while it took the President’s Office three days after President Christian had been notified of the signage in DuBois to publically respond.
When we take into consideration the numerous individuals on campus who emailed residence life and the President to voice their concerns before an email was sent, we can’t help but wonder if the email was a response to the incident or a response to the pressure to publically acknowledge the incident.
When reading the emails from both administration and UPD, they emphasized disappointment over the methods used to initially post the sign and the critiques of their reactions, rather than fully discussing how disgusting and deplorable the signage in the past years has been.
We are told constantly that our safety is the top priority of campus officials. But when the individual who brought the message to light is shamed for going to Facebook before UPD and the emphasis is on that disappointment is the driving force in the already delayed response, it becomes a bit hard to believe.
We hardly feel the need to express just how serious and appalling a statement like “Emmett Till deserved to die” being written on a door in a residence hall is. When you weigh in the historical context of the Emmett Till tragedy, it is absolutely unacceptable to know of such a statement and ignore it for several days. As of our press time, the story has been picked up by The Albany Times Union, The New Jersey Herald, The Connecticut Post, Newsday, Seattle Post Intelligencer, The Times Herald Record, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Fancisco Gate, which means there are people out there beside us, our fellow students and faculty members who realize just how serious of an issue this is and how it needs to be immediately addressed.
We keep hearing how “unfortunate” it was that intial knowledge of the sign had been posted to Facebook. But, if it hadn’t been posted to Facebook, would we have ever even know this happened?
We’re not sure.
If the situations within the past two years have taught anyone anything, it is that these issues do not go away unless we hold people accountable and make it clear immediately that this type of behavior will not be accepted on our campus. There will always be some terrible person out there who will do something as harmful and malicious as what happened in DuBois Hall. However, taking a stand betters our chance of preventing people like this from having the audacity to say something as hateful as writing “Emmett Till deserved to die” on a whiteboard.
This school, our home for nine months out of the year, continually touts itself as being “progressive.” That is a hefty claim that comes with a great deal of weight and responsibility. Just because marginalized groups on our campus are vocal and visible, that does not mean we can call ourselves progressive. To truly be progressive, we need to be a place that stares racism, sexism, homophobia, queerphobia, ableism and human indecency straight in the face and immediately make it clear that we will not accept it, that we will do everything to stop it from happening again.
In the past, New Paltz has looked for inspiration from private institutions of higher education to build improved models of how we handle our operations. New Paltz should look at how Oberlin College handled the situation when they had racist signs posted on their campus. Oberlin cancelled classes for a day and required their entire student body to attend workshops on the subject. We should definitely be taking similar actions, as previous attempts at preventing the issue clearly have not worked.
Everyone that is part of this campus community wants campus to be a safe space. That is not what is being questioned here. What we question is if our safety is more important than the appeal of prospective students thinking of attending New Paltz. We can only hope that in the future, we will emphasize just how horrific these incidents truly are.