New England Colleges Try A Not-So-Quick Fix To Stop Rash Of Hate Crimes

Mar 20, 2018

Groups tracking hate crimes said there's a marked increase in the number of racist slurs and white supremacist group activity found scrawled on college campuses around the country and in New England.

At the end of February, hundreds of University of Vermont students occupied a main building on campus demanding, not for the first time, the school do more to address issues of racial justice on campus. 

The Anti-Defamation League connects an increase in these types of incidents to the political climate, including President Donald Trump's comments and tweets on racial issues.

"Since September of 2016, we've documented 346 incidents of white supremacist propaganda," said Robert Trestan, ADL’s regional director for New England.

That number is from the ADL's January 2018 report on the rise of white supremacy propaganda found on college campuses.

"Flyers, stickers, banners, or posters -- you know, items that are actually trying to attract people, and spread a message of bigotry," Trestan said.

Schools in California and Texas are most often hit, according to the report. But the numbers everywhere are up, including in New England.

The activities of white nationalist groups are highly visible, even more so when there's violence, like around the University of Virginia in Charlottesville last summer. Then there are the insidious, more frequent incidents of hate, like the nearly two dozen last semester at Westfield State University, about 15 miles west of Springfield, Massachusetts.

Westfield State President Ramon Torrecilha repeatedly, publicly condemned the racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic symbols that defaced walls and elevators around campus.

In fall 2017, several residence halls at Westfield State University were targeted with racist epithets.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

The racist slurs found written on dormitory room doors, or scrawled on paper and then slipped under the doors, felt personal to Jasmin Harper, a senior at Westfield State who lived in the dorms last fall.

"The one female who was targeted, was targeted multiple times," Harper said. "And for the residence halls to be attacked, how are we supposed to feel safe?"

Harper, who is African American and Hispanic, is not alone in asking.

Freshman Sara Jabber, a Palestinian American who wears a hijab, withdrew from a night class last fall.

Sara Jabber, right, and her sister, Hannah, are both students at Westfield State University. Sara stopped going to night class last semester after nearly two dozen racist and bigoted incidients were reported on campus.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

"After everything happened, I really didn't want to be on campus at night," Jabber said.

So she started skipping class.

"The people who were targeted weren't Muslim," Jabber said. "But I still feel like it could be Muslims next."

Westfield State University professor Imo Nse Imeh said many students came to speak with him last semester about the ongoing incidents. Imeh, who teachers art history, said a criminal justice major was among them. She is white, he said, and she really just wanted to do something helpful.  

"[She] told me how she went to one of the rallies that happened on campus, and it was a student-led rally," Imeh said. "But she was frightened, because she got there with her white friends, and the black students that were on stage, she felt they were saying things that were very anti-white."

She felt like she was being blamed, he said.

Christina Swaidan, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, at Westfield State University.
Credit Westfield State University

Last semester was very challenging, said Westfield State University Dean of Undergraduate Studies Christina Swaidan.

The school is responding to the events, she said. Some solutions are quick and more concrete than others, like the 400 security cameras installed in and around dorms and other buildings over the winter break. Solutions that involve people talking to each other will take longer.

“As a person of color who's been here for going on 14 years, I think that not everyone is comfortable in an environment that is very diverse,” Swaidan said.

By everyone, Swaidan meant everyone on campus: students, faculty and staff.

The bigotry playing out at Westfield State isn't driven by a white supremacist movement, Swaidan insisted. But the school does have a problem on its hands and it hired a diversity consultant.

William Lewis has worked with colleges and corporations on these kinds of matters. He agreed with Swaidan; the people committing these bigoted acts are "outliers."

"So we have to do as college campuses is to create a space to where they feel uncomfortable, where we're not complicit by being silent," Lewis said. "If [someone] can't get on board, this might not be the campus for [them]."

Even before Lewis arrived in early March, Swaidan said efforts to change the culture on campus were underway. Faculty -- veteran classroom teachers among them -- are being taught how to have culturally sensitive conversations with students, and how to teach inclusively, which can mean a variety of things.

It also can be applied to what materials are used in the classroom. Imagine a typical psychology 101 course. Photos or YouTube videos about how humans make decisions may be projected at the front of the room. If teachers are not already doing so, Lewis said, they'll have to make the effort to find media with not only white people on the screen, but people who look like students in the classroom.

It is a first step at Westfield, and at other schools, and it seems far away from that racist slur on a dormitory room door. But the research on combating bias and hate crimes indicates it's not.

Still, the change will take time. Last month at Westfield State University, two more posters were found defaced with racist graffiti.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies, including Rhode Island Public Radio, joining together to tell stories of a changing region with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.