March 7th, 2013
02:20 PM ET

My View: Oberlin wrong to cancel classes after hate incidents

John S. WilsonBy John S. Wilson, Special to CNN

Editor's note: John S. Wilson is a contributing writer for Forbes, Huffington Post and Black Enterprise. He frequently writes about health and education policies and politics.  He's on Twitter at @johnwilson.

(CNN) – When I was around 12 or 13, one of just a few black students in my entire grade, a substitute teacher made inappropriate remarks about slavery. When I got home, I just knew my mother would do something about it; this was a woman who visited my school as though she had to punch a clock.

She listened, said the teacher was wrong, and that was it. No angry phone calls, no marching to the school, no request for anyone to be reprimanded or fired. I was shocked. But she told me that my school didn’t share the same values as that teacher, and she was confident the unfortunate incident was temporary but the values the school instilled were permanent.

That’s what a school’s mission is all about: permanency. Instilling character that cannot be tarnished by temporary incidents - even when very offensive – over which it has little control.

But Oberlin College in Ohio made a very poor decision this week. Classes were canceled in response to a rash of racist and anti-gay incidents aimed at students and a student’s report she had seen someone on campus dressed in a white hooded robe. (Police said they received a report of a student wearing a blanket, but couldn’t say whether the incidents were related.)

On Monday, the campus held a “Day of Solidarity,” which consisted of diversity programming, an Africana teach-in, and what Meredith Gadsby, chairwoman of the Africana Studies Department, called “positive propaganda.” If you're at a loss for exactly what that is, think a collegiate version of a “Sesame Street” marathon, minus Oscar the Grouch.

Oberlin passed up an opportunity. Instead of canceling classes, they should have continued normal business while finding ways to draw upon their incredibly strong history of diversity and inclusion.

By canceling classes and generally overreacting - let's face it, racism and baseless discriminatory scrawls on posters and walls will never go away - Oberlin is only sheltering students, instead of assisting them to overcome adversity, an action that would truly fortify their character. What example does this set for students, many of whom will soon be in the workforce? If a supervisor or co-worker offends them, who will be there then to host their day of solidarity?

In 2011, someone scrawled “N*****s Must Die” on a dormitory wall at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Police investigated and student leaders met with the administration to find an appropriate response. Administrators there, too, thought the appropriate reaction was to cancel classes and queue up an all-day “Sesame Street”-style marathon entitled “Claiming Williams.”

Tracey E. Vitchers, a Williams alumna and youth education project worker, said it best in an op-ed shortly thereafter:

“While events like ‘Claiming Williams’ and campuswide lunches may provide a brief outlet for students to voice concerns about the social dynamics of a college community, it ultimately allows administrators to pull a blanket over their own eyes - as well as the eyes of alumni, trustees and parents - and pretend as if what has proven to be a systemic problem has been solved through a workshop or an administrator's speech.”

I don’t believe a systemic problem exists within Oberlin. Incidents like these rarely happen on its campus or in the community at large, and the college has a history of diverse inclusion that dates back well into the 1800s. It was the first to say it would admit African-Americans, and the first co-ed program to award women bachelor’s degrees.

W.E.B. Du Bois, the renowned civil rights activist, co-founder of the NAACP and the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, lavished praise on the college, noting in his book “The College-Bred Negro American” saying that “Oberlin College is especially notable because it was the great pioneer in the work of blotting out the color line in colleges." It is just about the last school one would expect to be in this quagmire regarding diversity.

But a systemic problem does exist in the world Oberlin is preparing its students to enter. The uncomfortable truth is: minority students must know that that no matter how qualified, intelligent, deserving, ambitious or well-intentioned they might be, it is likely they will face adversity to a degree their white peers will not.

How else could it be explained that white male ex-convicts (when controlling for all other factors) are hired more often than black males without arrest records? Or that two resumes of comparable quality submitted to employers produce a result where “white names got about one callback per 10 resumes; black names got one per 15?” Or that of the nearly 700,000 people the New York City Police Department stopped and frisked last year, 87% were black or Latino?

"We came to believe that Oberlin was a safe place, away from all of the troubles of the world, a place that we didn't need to worry about hate, or racism, or anything like that,” Joshua Blue, an Oberlin freshman, wrote on Twitter. “These events made us all realize that though we do live in somewhat of a safe haven, we are still a part of the world, and the world's problems are also our problems. It's nice to feel safe, but it's more important to actively pursue that."

Oberlin, or any college, cannot prepare students - particularly minorities - for every adversity they are likely to face. They cannot guarantee employers will be fair or hire solely on merit; or that police officers won’t presume their level of guilt based on the color of their skin. I think it’s safe to say that “positive propaganda” alone will neither instill character in students nor inoculate them from a very biased reality.

This is something Al Porterfield, an associate professor of psychology at the college, alluded to after the incidents.

"The hollow, hateful individual(s) behind these events is (are) not worth one iota of our time and attention," he wrote online. “It makes me angry to think that we should give this person so much control over our lives as to cancel our mission, to cancel classes,” he said later to USA Today.

Oberlin is right to take these threats seriously by engaging local, state and, if necessary, federal authorities, and by punishing any students involved. The college has a duty to protect its students, staff and guests to the best of its ability. But the college must do so while also preparing students to thrive in a world in which equal opportunity and equality before the law are still more often than not notions for which we may strive but are far from common practice.

All the positive propaganda and Africana in the world won’t change that ugly fact.

The opinions expressed are solely those of John S. Wilson.

Posted by
Filed under: College • Diversity • School safety • Voices
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Sam

    Clearly, none of you are a minority and do not know that when you are targeted for things outside of your control, like race, it is good to speak with others and to air your feelings and for those who may be racist to hear what the students that they are targeting are feeling. Having the teach in was the write thing to do and worrying about tuition is the last thing on the minds of parents of students who are minorities. Should minority students not have to pay tuition because they feel uncomfortable or unsafe on campus? Or should other people say they feel they should be refunded for their student missing a day of teaching when another more inportant issue was being spoken about.

    March 12, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  2. Jessie

    Dear John,

    Oberlin is preparing its students to enter a world where many injustices are cloaked in silence. They are teaching their students to have a voice.

    I'm an Oberlin alum and at college learned the power of dialogue. I use this tool and others as an educator in the public school system.

    You might be interested in an article I wrote for xoJane which states that Oberlin was completely right to take education out of the classroom and into the streets:

    March 11, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  3. qwerty

    As the father of an Oberlin student, my first reaction to the closing was to wonder if I'd get a day's credit on the tuition bill. But, really, what's the harm in devoting a day to talking about race in America (no matter what prompted it)? Oberlin prides itself on preparing its students to think in the real world. Race issues remain in America and pretending they don't isn't healthy for people or our nation.

    March 8, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  4. Jansen

    Mr. Wilson, you acknowledge the reality and pervasiveness of racism in society but don't seem to see the benefit of the rallies, demonstrations of solidarity, teach-ins, "positive propaganda" that Oberlin has responded with. I think those are the best (if not the only) tools we have to fight racism. Why not at least make an effort with those tools, especially when a small community feels their values (and perhaps personal safety) are being threatened?

    (I truncated my comment because my long one wouldn't there a character limit?)

    March 7, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
  5. Matthew

    I do agree with you that classes should not be cancelled, but the President of Oberlin College and the various deans were put into a situation where they had to cancel classes. It was reported into the Oberlin Review, the student newspaper, that students were the one that demanded classes to be cancelled. The deans and president refused to cancel formal classes. It was not until after the students planned on blockading academic classes and disrupting classes for other students that they decided to cancel class to prevent a possible riot.

    March 7, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • funknap

      Thanks for reading. That's interesting the administration had its hand forced. It's hard to see what that one day off helped to achieve, or why students would feel it would be helpful. Thanks for the comment.

      March 7, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • Mike

      It was probably one of those self-same activitsts who demanded that classes be cancelled as posted the racist notes and claimed to see the KKK person in the first place!

      March 7, 2013 at 7:32 pm |