Sunday, April 10, 2016

Campuses Are Not Sovereign Nation-States

The photo to your left is of a sock-monkey, hung by a noose from one of the windows on the campus of Rhodes College this week. It should go without saying, I hope, that not only is the sock-monkey itself a manifestly racist symbol (echoing the colonialist project of comparing blacks to apes in order to justify their exploitation and repeating many of the stereotypes of blackface minstrelsy), but hanging the monkey by a noose is also an obvious symbolic reference to the long and terroristic history of anti-black lynchings in the United States.

Rhodes' sock-monkey-lynching came on the heels of several reported incidents of sexual assault on campus. I don't know how many incidents or the details of those reports, but it was enough to motivate students and sympathetic faculty to organize a forum last week to discuss the growing and pervasive problem of sexual violence on Rhodes' campus, which I came to know about through multiple Facebook postings.  For the record, the problem of increasing and increasingly-unaddressed sexual violence is not a "new" problem at Rhodes College. Around this time last year, statistics showed that Rhodes had one of the highest numbers of reported on-campus rapes in the state of Tennessee.  Those statistics only count "reported" cases.

Also this week, as if the above weren't enough, chalk-scrawlings appeared on Rhodes' campus sidewalks that read "TRUMP 2016 BUILD A WALL." Let me be the first to say that no one ought object to students' free and public expression of support for the political candidate of their choice, especially in a Presidential election year, and especially in a Presidential election year in which the real ideological differences between candidates is as pronounced as it is in this cycle. However, the "wall" referenced in these sidewalk declarations to "BUILD A WALL"-- like the sock-monkey, like the lynching noose-- is a history/context-specific symbol. It clearly targets a specific, Hispanic/Latin@ population. It clearly echoes the nativist, anti-immigrant discourse to which Donald Trump has recently given, not the first, but only the loudest and most unapologetic voice. We should not make the mistake of reading "BUILD A WALL" and "TRUMP 2016" as identical in content, affect or effect. There is a real, discernable difference between a whistle and a dog-whistle.

For the unfamiliar, Rhodes College is a small, private, very expensive ($55K per year), semi-selective (ranked #97 in private colleges), liberal arts institution here in Memphis. With respect to these recent incidents, it's probably most important to note that, according to the most recent Forbes report, Rhodes' student demographic is 77% white. I couldn't find official statistics to verify this, but anecdotally, I'll just note that I would guess that the Rhodes' faculty/administrative demographic is roughly the same, percentage-wise, predominantly white. The college exists in a "gated community." (There is a literal iron gate surrounding the campus and separating it from its immediate, less-wealthy and less-white, proximate neighborhoods.) Both inside and outside of that gate, you will hear people in Memphis frequently refer to the "Rhodes bubble," an idyllic mini-world that psychologically and existentially insulates those who enjoy its protections from the considerably less-idyllic world outside. Rhodes' campus happens to be located in my neighborhood and [full disclosure] it also is where I held a faculty position in the Philosophy Department for seven years from 2007-14.

Exactly nothing about these recent incidences on Rhodes' campus surprises me. They do not surprise me as a Memphian, they do not surprise me as a residential neighbor of Rhodes' campus, nor do they surprise me as a former and long-time member of the "Rhodes community."  I am least of all surprised, however, by the fact that there has been exactly zero coverage of any of these recent incidences in the local news.

That's one seriously impenetrable gate they have over there.

Signs on Rhodes campus this week
What is happening at Rhodes College, and what the rest of us are not hearing about it, is not unique.  For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth you might have read about today's campuses being turned into gulags where students' minds are anesthetized and their voices are silenced by PC-police, the on-the-ground reality is a very far cry from that. Racism, sexual violence, and nativist anti-immigrant sentiment are common on college campuses, just as they are everywhere else in the United States.

Here's the important difference: everywhere else in the United States, racist threats and intimidation, sexual assault and rape, anti-immigrant prejudice and hate speech-- even garden-variety offenses like graffiti-- are matters for the police, by which I mean they are incidences that they require "official" redress, either as violations of law or as infractions of unofficially-binding but commonly-held civic relations. On college and university campuses in the United States, however, these offenses (often, crimes) are commonly and customarily relegated to the Office of Student Services, or some Associate Dean, or a Vice-Provost, or a "Diversity Officer" or, in the worst of all possible scenarios, they are given over to the deliberations of some poor, unsuspecting, pitifully under-trained and woefully unqualified Student Board. Everywhere else in the United States, when things like what happened on Rhodes' campus this week occur, formal reports are filed, investigative procedures are initiated by parties-without-interest, findings and judgments are assessed in reference to statute, penalties or exonerations are assigned according to law.  On college campuses and universities, however, "town hall" meetings are held, students are provided fora in which they can "express their concerns and frustrations," emails are composed, vetted by University counsel, and then internally circulated, which disavow "any and all activities that violate the fundamental principles articulated in [insert random College/University Mission Statement] and which not represent the values of the [insert random College/University name] community."

Somewhere in the shuffle over the last three decades, as colleges and universities have grown and morphed to more closely resemble corporations, and as corporations have grown and morphed to more closely resemble sovereign individuals, we seem to have lost sight of one, critically important, very basic fact:

Campuses are NOT sovereign nation-states.

Colleges and universities may write their own idiosyncratic, community-specific "law," but that law does not supplant or supervene jus cogens, nor does it supplant or supervene State and federal (Constitutional) Law. Hate-speech is still a crime.  Rape is still a crime.  We must stop allowing colleges and universities to adjudicate matters of law as they see fit, for the protection and profit of institutions and to the harm of students, who are also-- lest we forget-- citizens.

In almost every case, the administrators who occupy final-authority, decision-making positions in Offices of Student Affairs or Diversity Services or the like on college/university campuses across the nation are not police. They are not attorneys. They are not experts in the law. They are not hired for their skill or training in the adjudication of criminal investigations. More importantly, they are not expected to be so, which is to say they are expected to forward the interests of their employers, even when forwarding the interests of their employers may be at odds not only with their civic responsibilities, but also their moral conscience.

As a former employee of Rhodes College, I have no doubt that many otherwise decent, conscientious, and well-meaning administrators, faculty, and students who are deeply concerned about the events that transpired this past week, are also convinced-- either by choice, habit, or persuasion--that handling those matters "in-house" is the best path forward.  They are wrong.

Also wrong, dead wrong, are the many otherwise decent, conscientious, and well-meaning news reporters in Memphis who are neglecting to cover the story of what is happening on Rhodes' campus, who trust that what happens "inside the gates" of that campus surely is only the business of that campus, where it surely is being appropriately addressed.

It's time to burst the "Rhodes bubble."  And every other bubble of every other campus in the United States that imagines itself to be above the law.


Anonymous said...

I read from current Rhodes students on Facebook that the perpetrator of the sock monkey incident 1. did not know that it resembled any type of cultural/racial symbolism, hate crime, etc. 2. said it was the product of "goofing around" with friends, and was not an intentional decision. From what I've heard, they've profusely apologized for their actions and the inconsiderate and uneducated point of view preventing them from understanding the harm in their actions before it occurred. This is obviously a bigger sign of the white privilege on campus and lack of historical education. Sounds like Rhodes should take European History off as an option to fulfill your History Foundation requirements. Might do the student body some good.

Great article though, just wanted to provide an update.

Anonymous said...

I believe several fraternities and sororities (nationally) have advocated (in the past, I believe all national orgs have withdrawn support from it) for something called the Safe Campus Act. In this act, college campuses would no longer be able to handle sexual assault crimes in house. Instead, they would have to file charges with the police and go through the United States court system. Do you perhaps wonder why they all backed out from supporting this act? Because it is a horrible idea that throws the idea of victims' rights out the window. Victims NEED the option to handle things in house without having their entire reputation jeopardized by the public court system, a system that is NOTORIOUSLY hard for victims to handle. It is just as damaging to have the spotlight flung upon your college right after you've been sexually assaulted. I've been assaulted, I don't broadcast that publicly, and words cannot describe how angry I would be if I were one of these victims and my trauma became a talking point in legislature for the college, or a gossip story about "how there are rapists walking around, did you hear someone got assaulted last weekend?" If I'm the person who got assaulted, I don't want that shoved in my face everywhere I go, by students gossiping, by those horribly insensitive posters, by the news, by anything. Shame on you, doctor. Have some more respect for victims.

Leigh M. Johnson said...

No comments have been removed or deleted from this post so far.

I will ask that anyone interested in engaging in productive conversation about these issues please comment under their real name going forward. I very rarely respond directly to anonymous/pseudonymous commenters and, of course, I reserve the right to moderate this discussion as I see fit.

Anonymous said...

Apologies. *** witch***

Leigh M. Johnson said...

Alas, nothing lends a commenter conviction, certainty, and fortitude like hiding behind "Anonymous." Yawn.

Anonymous said...

Laugh at or ignore the hanging sock monkey and it goes quietly away. Suggest it means something racial and it becomes all powerful.

Anonymous said...

I view this "prank" as just that - a prank between two roommates - one poking fun at the other for bringing a sock puppet to college. Seems far less racist than the tweets of Zandria Robinson last summer - equating whiteness to terrorism?

M Matthews '84

proudafricanqueen said...

we should ban all monkeys and monkey related items from the u.s.!!! there is no place for black paint, or black cellphones or the color black. we should also ban anything and everything that has anything to do with anything anyone has ever said negative about african american. this includes banning fried chicke, watermelons, sanford and son, bill cosby, black paint, black anything for that matter, monkey, gorrilla... all apes and prmates for that matter. we should also ban the ability for those racist ass crackers to put stuff in their lips to make them look puffy like our gorgeous african brothers and sisters have. ban ropes and trucks and crosses. ban all white sheets and ban all kids from wearing "ghost" costumes because that is obviousely just another kkk symbol. casper the friendly ghost was a klansman. white people have enslaved us long enough. if a zoo is keeping a monkey in a cage isnt that just another form of indoctrination to make people believe that its ok to keep us proud african people enslaved?

Anonymous said...

From one anonymous victim of sexual assault to the previous post by an anonymous victim-it's precious that you have enough faith in university administrations to think that they'll handle the matter appropriately in house. The sad reality is that they actually have a long-standing history of fucking that whole process up, and if you're unfamiliar with that history and the very real trauma it further causes victims (as well as tarring and feathering their reputations), I suggest you watch The Hunting Ground. There's a reason so many women came together to file Title IX complaints against their schools, and it's not because handling it in house preserved their reputation and kept people from talking about "how there are rapists walking around"-there are-or how "someone got assaulted last week"-someone did. While every victim is certainly entitled to discerning a process for handling their situation (I'm not judging your preference for privacy), please don't think for even one second that you can speak on behalf of all victims. Some of us are more concerned with justice, exposing the truth, and preventing such incidents from happening again than we are with tip toeing to the counselor's office and hoping they'll administer a "stern warning" to the perpetrator. Not all victims are going to be shamed into silence. Being assaulted is horrific and traumatic, but it can also mean something and have a higher purpose. My victimhood is going to mean something, damn it.

PS-are you seriously citing fraternities and sororities support/lack thereof the Safe Campus Act as a credible reference for sexual assault? Sexual assault on college campuses has a heavy correlation to fraternity culture (in addition to athletics). Please find better points before shaming a doctor advocating on behalf and in the interest of students.

Richard Phillips said...

I wish I could sign in through facebook. I guess Google will have to do.

How do you make it to college in 2016 and still not know that lynching a monkey has horrible racial implications?! I heard the student profusely apologized to the entire campus but that ignorance by itself reeks of a lack of cultural sensitivity in a city where it should be pretty fucking easy.

I do remember my time at Rhodes there were multiple homophobic crimes and I personally knew several girls who were sexually assaulted. Good to know Rhodes is still the same administrative black hole it was 5 years ago.

I do love the hysterical responses from anonymous commenters at the mere thought that we should actually let the police deal with crime. Don't worry your little fees fees white people. The cops will STILL probably side with your super rapey and racist frats.

Patrick Harris said...

Hate-speech," qua "hate speech," is not a crime, in this country anyway. Many behaviors that might be deemed to constitute hate speech *are* crimes or at least civil torts: slander, threats, harassment, etc. Chalking on the sidewalk may be a criminal act, for that matter. But hate speech as such is not illegal, and is unlikely to be so long as the First Amendment exists.

That doesn't mean, of course, that an institution can't seek to cultivate more robust norms of civility by punishing speech it deems hateful. However, I'm not sure there's as much of a categorical distinction as you suggest here between chalking "Trump 2016" and "Build a Wall." The first supports candidate, while the second supports a public policy measure (however ill-conceived) that has already to a great extent been pursued by administrations of both parties and is intended to prevent an activity (clandestine border crossings) that is, of course, illegal. That policy position may be (and is) associated, in practice, with hostility toward immigrants or Latinos. But then, so is support for Trump. Would advocating a border wall be so unacceptably bigoted that the administration should intervene to prevent it from appearing in the pages of a student newspaper? If not, why is the same idea's appearance in chalk worse than in print?