KELLY: Silencing the hecklers

Random acts of vandalism do not indicate a larger race problem at the University

Students and faculty have rightly condemned the incident of racist graffiti that took place on Grounds last week. But we should not leap to conclusions about the motives behind the defacement of the Elson Student Health Center sign. Nor should we assume that the act of vandalism indicates brewing racial tensions at the University.

Our condemnations of virulent perpetrations such as these must be unequivocal and swift. In condemning them and quickly brushing them aside, I believe that we do not reveal insecurities about the state of race relations at the University but instead express confidence in the strength of such relations.

Some students have remarked that the incident does not surprise them because of racial tensions at the University. Yet I do not believe that this most recent event is indicative of high racial tension. First and foremost, it is currently unknown whether a University student committed this crime. And so it is both misinformed and irresponsible to blame the incident on perceived racial tensions at the University.

Racist incidents have occurred here in the past. Yet I must urge caution. Reinvigorating the debate about racial tensions at the University does not provide a meaningful service. We must not allow random acts such as these to call into question the strength of our community relations, nor permit petty expressions of hate to give us reasons to doubt the degree of hospitality afforded by our University.

First, the indiscriminate and sporadic acts of hateful individuals do not necessarily reflect tension within the entire University community. The University has come a long way in the past few decades in supporting a diverse, welcoming community for its students. In the past, such as after a string of racial incidents in 2005, the University community has united in opposition against such bigotry.

If the worst we have to worry about now is an insensitive piece of graffiti, we underestimate the degree of progress that has already been made concerning racial issues. To respond to a random event such as this by amplifying the dialogue on race presupposes that racism is a growing problem. Even though we should continue to emphasize a standard of no racism whatsoever, the relative scarcity of racial incidents in recent years should serve to encourage us. We should respond quickly and committedly to these incidents. Responding with doubt and uncertainty might create the wrong impression.

To give the incident itself more than a few minutes of attention is to satisfy the goal of the perpetrator: to give the issue notice. Yet we must treat such foolish crimes with the contempt and derision that they deserve. If the community is truly united, it should be strong enough to both condemn and transcend such behavior. In moving beyond events such as these, we do not disregard the issue of racial tension; instead, we surpass the spiteful instigators who may often take desperate measures to garner attention or to cause conflict.

Though more discussion about race relations may in some way prove to be productive, it may be an overreaction if it comes as an explicit response to this occurrence. Granted, students today and in the past have expressed dissatisfaction with race relations at the University, and their claims should be taken seriously. But to equate random acts of individual racism with significant racial tension at the University as a whole is misguided. Our collective commitment to strengthening the unity of our community should remain robust, regardless of rogue incidents.

To assume that racial tension is a growing problem at the University gives too much weight to the erratic, petty racial slanders that have been made over the years. The commonalities of past events, particularly their increasingly desperate and outlandish qualities, point to the community’s success in marginalizing racism. Isolated incidents are not in and of themselves worthy of extended attention; we must have the presence of mind to quickly surpass them.

It is understandable that some students may feel unwelcome in the face of such an event, yet I would simply caution them against giving it too much attention. The foolish action of a spiteful individual from time to time is not an indicator of broader racial tension. The conversation about race relations is one that is worth having, yet is one that should be undertaken with care and one that should exist independent of sporadic hateful crimes.

Conor Kelly is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.

Published January 20, 2014 in Opinion

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