It started with a Halloween costume. As it inevitably happens every year, a group of students at an extraordinarily smart university made the extraordinarily dumb decision to perpetuate racist stereotypes and go out dressed up as “cholos”—basically, as third-year Vincente Perez explains, racist caricatures of Mexican gangsters. Perez and a friend confronted one of the partygoers, but they were laughed off. Upon returning home, he found more offensive pictures posted online.
Frustrated, Perez decided to bring attention to the matter via the usual methods—word of mouth, school publications, social media, the works—but this time, he and fourth-year Jaime Sanchez Jr., exhausted by the blatant apathy and lack of respect around them, also took it a step further and released a statement to university community calling for at the very least an acknowledgment and condemnation of the incident. 26 student organizations and 16 professors from various departments supported the statement.
In an age where anonymous social media reigns supreme, the backlash was almost instantaneous. Critics took to Yik Yak, slamming the statement, its creators, and another Change.org petition they had begun to circulate; created on November 14, it had more than 2,000 supporters by the end of one week. The attacks didn’t stop with Perez and Sanchez, however; the anonymous voices most viciously attacked one of Perez’s equally vocal friends, first-year Derek Caquelin, hacking his Facebook profile and threatening the entire group.
“F____ YOU N______ AND ‘POC’ WITH YOUR SAFE SPACE AND PLANS TO DISRUPT MINE AND MY FELLOW UCHICAGOANS STUDY TIME GO F____ YOURSELVES… UCHICAGO ELECTRONIC ARMY STRIKES AGAIN. Vincente YOU ARE NEXT. NONE OF YOUR PROFILES ARE SAFE.” read the message, before threatening further action. “THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF OUR RAPE SEASON, RAPE HARD AND HARDER UNTIL THEYRE [sic] QUIET, BROTHERS.”
UChicago’s President Robert Zimmer and Provost Eric Isaacs responded to the hacking with a statement condemning the cyber-attack as “unacceptable and violat[ing] our core values.” They also announced that the FBI has become involved in the effort to uncover who is behind the hack. Dean John Boyer and Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Karen Coleman also issued a statement acknowledging the incident and saying, “These events require our serious attention, both immediately and over time.”
In spite of the statements, students at the university rather justifiably felt that enough real action wasn’t taken, and that officials were focusing on fixing only one incident as opposed to the much larger institution-wide micro-aggression issue. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Sanchez expressed his frustration with the university’s unwillingness to respond before the hack. “It shouldn’t be the case where we have to talk about these cases of extreme racism and bigotry … for the university to step up,” he stated.
Sanchez, Perez, and Caquelin have refused to back down in the face of intimidation and a lackluster administrative response, and organized a standing protest in the Harper Reading Room on the UChicago campus on Wednesday. They chanted “We are here,” and used the hashtag #liabilityofthemind—a play on the school’s motto “Life of the Mind”—to share their individual stories and struggles; over 1,500 tweets were sent out, printed and delivered to the administration on Friday. Additionally, 41 professors have now signed onto a letter sent to President Zimmer begging for a definitive long-term plan to improve the campus climate.
This whole debacle is not an isolated incident, but part of a larger pattern at the university: in the past year a confederate flag has also been hung prominently on campus by the Delta Upsilon fraternity, and it took until May for the creators of a Facebook page originally called “Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions” to shut it down. The page’s description encouraged students submitting confessions to be as offensive as possible, stating that “racism, homophobia, prejudice, offensiveness, etc. in all forms is welcome.” No one was punished for either incident, and a whole host of others have also passed by with little acknowledgement from university officials.
While the UChicago incident is absolutely disgusting, should be condemned to the fullest degree by the university, and addressed with the real changes in curriculum and policy that Perez and Sanchez are calling for in their petition, all of this is bigger than just one school; it’s about a much larger problem of cultural insensitivity and institutional racism that everyone likes to pretend doesn’t exist at the nation’s best schools, because we naively expect those students to be above that.
The sad truth is, they’re really not. If anything, they’re worse—being subtly racist consistently hurts a lot more than one blatant instance of racism, and that’s exactly the additional kind of cruelty students at UChicago and similar “top-tier” institutions engage in.
A lot of it has to do with the fact that many of these students come from extremely privileged backgrounds, and have never even been exposed to people with personal histories that don’t fit the usual top-tier template. “So many people at these schools are prepped from the day they’re born to come here that they don’t even realize that there are people here who’ve had to fight some unbelievable things to get here,” points out Perez.
The other problem is obvious: Otherwise smart kids tend to attempt to justify their inexcusably dumb decisions with the use of more sophisticated arguments that can be hard to argue with if you’re not properly equipped and ready to fight the anti-political correctness brigade.
But Perez says that “political correctness” isn’t what it used to be. “That term has been used to silence people…oppressors now get to decide how marginalized people get to feel. And that’s a huge problem.” It’s also about safety, he adds. “We’re talking about racial caricatures and stereotypes that lead to people’s deaths. Had these people been dressed like this in L.A., they would’ve experienced the police brutality. It’s not about being ‘politically correct’ then—these are acts of violence.”
And while the individual students themselves are bad, the institutions themselves as a whole are worse. In this instance, UChicago, for example, is notorious for isolating itself from the surrounding black community as it hides behind a private police force smaller only than that of the Vatican’s, that has no firm historical records, and has come under fire on multiple occasions for racial profiling. Upon examination, a number of other universities follow similar patterns of institutional oppression.
“There’s structural racism even in the way our neighborhoods are set up, the ways our high schools are set up, the ways our athletic programs our set up, in everything,” says Perez. “Inequalities exist in the K-12 system, and naturally manifest themselves in the stages after…it’s a whole culture of intolerance.”
And a culture it is: Just since the beginning of the school year, students at Northwestern University attempted to put on a “Jail N’ Bail” fundraiser, students at Duke University had to stop a “Bedouin-Style” Shabbat, and now there’s this student-run initiative we’ve been talking about at the University of Chicago, just to name a few instances.
Besides being absurdly offensive and awful, all of these cases have one thing in common: Students, not administrators, were the ones who finally put a stop to them.
Perez says that’s partially why the culture isn’t changing: fixing the problem has to start with an administrative acknowledgment that a problem is there, that racism does in fact exist, no matter what Supreme Court justices like to think. The next step, he says, is to actually do something about these oppressive structures—long-term. “When we approach an issue, it’s one-and-done,” he says, referring to universities’ tendencies to simply call for a forum on race or start a half-hearted temporary initiative calling for more diversity.
Instead, we need to be “actively doing something equitable,” suggests Perez. “The word ‘equity’ scares people because it implies justice, not just equality. But ‘equality’ itself doesn’t take into account historical wrongs.”
In short, it starts with the education process. When we don’t fix the problems here at the collegiate level, these people graduate more book-smart than ever, but without actually learning anything about the world around them. They go on to take up positions of power, and then you see the things that happen in places like Ferguson.
We must change the culture at our schools, before it literally kills our children.
In the case of UChicago, Perez says that in spite of everything that has happened, he doesn’t regret choosing the school. “The reason I do all of this is because I love it so much. No matter what, people of color are still going to come to the University of Chicago, so we have to do something to make it better…I’m fighting for students of color.”
The full demands of Perez and Sanchez’s petition can be found here.
In an email late Monday, Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Karen Coleman said that the university’s investigation into the alleged hacking has determined that “the Facebook posting was not created by a hacker.” Though many students were at first outraged by this conclusion, Caquelin himself later came forward and admitted to having posted the threat himself on his Facebook page, saying, “I am behind this, and only I. No others were involved, so I really would like to ask you to leave them alone.”
Perez also took to Facebook to emphasize the larger meaning behind the incident. “Someone felt they had to show something extreme to get people to care,” he said. “Think about that. This is not a justification. But think about what the weight of apathy can force people to do.”
In spite of the revelation, university officials say they will continue to take steps to address the issue of racism on campus. “These emerging facts do not in any way diminish the University’s commitment to a diverse campus, free from harassment and discrimination,” stressed Coleman.
The university’s website for FAQs about the incident says their investigation is still ongoing.