For more than a generation, San José State University has been a model of diversity and ethnic inclusion. A walk around the Northern California campus seems very much like an experience at the United Nations, with Asian, Latino and African-American students together making up a larger share of the student body than white students.
Not surprisingly, that history of diversity has left many on the campus and beyond wondering how it is that San José State finds itself embroiled in a national story about a vicious hate crime, a place where three white students harassed and hazed their African-American roommate. They used everything from the posting of a confederate flag and a placard carrying the N-word to the young man being barricaded in his room with a bicycle chain preventing his escape.
To a large degree, conversations with students and administrators at the college reveal a campus that is confounded by the recent events, unsure of how it turned a role model of diversity into a case study of intolerance and bigotry.
“We are all shocked and dismayed at the whole situation,” said Art King, San José State’s associate vice president for student affairs, in an interview with BET.com. “It’s not that we’re saying this should never have happened here. We’re saying it should never happen anywhere.”
King, like many others, has no quick explanation for what, if anything, in the school’s environment might have contributed to the incident. However, he offered a view expressed by administrators from the president on down that the school is determined to take steps to ensure that no such incidents occur again.
“We are going to revisit our policies and the training of our staff to make sure this won’t happen again,” he said. “We have to take steps to make sure that safety and security remain our priority on this campus.”
He points out that diversity doesn’t always translate into harmony. Although the student body is roughly one-third Asian, slightly less than a quarter Latino and 3 to 4 percent Black, there are no guarantees that students will coexist without incident.
“We need to do more work to make sure that we provide opportunities for students to learn from each other, no matter the differences in their backgrounds,” King said.
Student leaders, while similarly perplexed by the incident, are more inclined to have ready answers.
“I think it happened because it wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have [been] from the very beginning,” said Danielle M. Miller, a senior majoring in political science and president of the university’s Black Student Union, speaking with BET.com.
“The very presence of the confederate flag in the dorm would have gotten the attention of someone in authority,” she said. “But I think they wanted to brush it aside and turn their heads. They should have realized that this young man’s safety was being challenged in his own living space and done something about it.”
The three white students were charged with misdemeanor counts of harassment. The local NAACP, however, has called for stiffer felony charges against the students. Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said he believes that his office has filed “appropriate charges in this case," based upon the evidence. At the same time, he expressed his “deep respect for the NAACP,” adding, “We share its abhorrence for hate crimes and share its desire for justice."
The incident has received attention far beyond the campus at San Jose State. In a statement, John Pérez, the speaker of the California Assembly, said he and California State University Chancellor Timothy White will closely monitor the situation "so that every student knows that these unconscionable acts will not be tolerated anywhere, anytime."
Meanwhile, the three students have been suspended by the university, which has said it will conduct a full investigation.
There will be more discussions and more gatherings of students following the two demonstrations in the last week. One healthy sign, Miller said, was that the demonstrations have included a far wider range of students than the university’s African-American population.
“It started as something among our Black Unity Group,” she said, referring to a collection of African-American student organizations and fraternities and sororities. “But it’s become a campus solidarity issue now,” she said. “It has brought together people from all over the campus who are angry about the presence of hate crimes of any kind here. A lot of people have joined us.”
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(Photo: Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/MCT/LANDOV)