Commentary: Oberlin’s Racism Blemish

Oberlin, a school with a historically progressive attitude on race, has had a recent spate of hate-related incidents.

There is something spectacular about the historical relationship between Oberlin College and African-American students.
The school, about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland, was the first college in the United States to regularly admit Black students, long before the Civil War. In fact, Oberlin graduated its first African-American student, George Vashon, in 1844, a time when the overwhelming number of Black people in the United States were in slavery. It has always been associated with progressive values in education.

It is the school that made African-American history with such graduates as Mississippi Senator Blanche K. Bruce, who served in the U.S. Senate during reconstruction, and John Mercer Langston, who was the U.S. Minister to Haiti in the 1870s under President Rutherford B. Hayes.

In recent years, Oberlin has produced such prestigious Black alumni as Johnnetta Cole, the first female African-American president of Spelman College and, later, president of Bennett College. It is the alma mater of Jacqueline Berrien, the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and former Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.
And so it is particularly baffling and depressing to learn that this bastion of tolerance, enlightenment and high educational standards has been the scene of a series of recent hate-related incidents. In the last month, the school has seen racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic messages strewn throughout the campus.
There were racist slurs written on posters advertising Black History Month activities. There were swastikas and “Whites Only” messages drawn over water fountains. There was even a report of someone dressed in a Ku Klux Klan-like hood and white robe walking through the campus near the school’s African Heritage House.
How does a progressive institution like Oberlin find itself in this situation? This is a student body whose members know the history and commitment to upholding a liberal, tolerant educational atmosphere long before that arrive on campus. How is it that such madness infects one of the premier institutions of broadmindedness?
The sad truth is that the infection of intolerance is pervasive in American society in the age of Obama. We’re living in an era when Supreme Court justices consider the right to vote for African-Americans to be a form of “racial entitlement.” We’re in a period where Republican candidates for president cavalierly refer to the nation’s first Black commander-in-chief as the “food stamp president.” This is the period in American history that has seen the most highly orchestrated assault on minority voting since the end of Reconstruction. And in the midst of it are Republican elected officials boasting about it.
Evidence of incivility toward Black and Latino Americans is as abundant as it is disheartening. That it would eventually seep into the academic halls and grounds of Oberlin is not a particular shock. Nonetheless, it is a sad testament to mores of expanding coarseness in the United States.
On Monday, the school’s leadership canceled classes in order to conduct a “Day of Solidarity.” Oberlin’s president Marvin Krislov brought together students in a packed campus chapel and offered an apology on behalf of the school to students who felt offended or threatened by the incidents of intolerance.
In doing so, Krislov said he was seeking to establish “a different type of educational exercise” that was focused on conducting “an honest discussion, even a difficult discussion.”
It is a wise and sensible template for what we as a nation should do. There is a simmering racism in the world of the new millennium that often percolates into sizzling bigotry, fanaticism and narrow-mindedness. It’s time for the country to do what Oberlin’s leaders are doing: confronting it with an aim of improving things.

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(Photo: AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

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