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Yates: Ire about racism at UCSD is misguided

SAN DIEGO -- The recent events at UCSD have created a firestorm of controversy, and much of it isn’t surprising. That’s what you get when issues of race are discussed at length. But I fear that what is at the core of the argument is being convoluted by a cacophony of media stories that are fueling that firestorm.

The simple fact is that the reckless actions of a misguided few are dragging an entire university through the mud.

Let me throw out a disclaimer: I’m as white as they come. I’m from a hard-working middle-class family. But, I also grew up in parts of Colorado and Virginia where, often times, I was the minority, which allowed me to have a wide variety of cultural experiences — some black, some Asian, some Hispanic.

But even having lived through those experiences, I’m in no position to proclaim myself a harbinger of black culture. So, yes, maybe I am the wrong person to be trying to write this, given that I will NEVER be able to truly identify with what the black students at UCSD are feeling at this moment.

I can’t begin to understand the perceived fear, lack of safety, and undeniable disrespect that black students have endured for the two weeks since the now infamous “Compton Cookout,” but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that it seems the university is getting undue criticism because of an imprudent party that it was unfortunate enough to be associated with.

Of course the whole notion of a “Compton Cookout,” is a bad idea. Having any party (whether it be a “white trash” party, a “ghetto” party, or whatever) that perpetuates negative stereotypes about a certain group of people can be seen as irresponsible and insensitive.

But it is what’s happened in the wake of the party that has created the most animosity, not the party itself. Let us not forget that the entire atmosphere of racial unrest was started by a fledgling “comedian,” (and that word is used slathered in sarcasm) who was trying to promote a new DVD.

The perpetrator, named Jiggaboo Jones, said in a recent YouTube video that he encouraged people to “come down and be black. You can put some shoe polish on and for that night, you can be an honorary ‘n-word,’ for the event.” He later claims that the event was not racist and there was nothing about the event that was racist.

You know, aside from the shoe polish thing.

The school came out quickly and admonished the party — which was not sanctioned by the school and held off-campus — and the notion that there is a sense of racism on campus. Jones, who’s MySpace page lists his name as Nipsey Washington, later defended the party again with an official statement on his Web site, and on the Roger Hedgecock radio program.

Since then, there have been several incidents to fan the already growing flames of hate and distrust burning in Torrey Pines.

First, there was the KoalaTV program that discussed the fallout from the party, in which its editor, Kris Gregorian, 25, dropped the N-bomb. KoalaTV, a student-run, closed-circuit station, has a reputation for inciting controversy across campus, all in the name of “free speech and the First Amendment.” Gregorian, as seen in a column by the Union-Tribune’s Michael Stetz, has proven himself to be at best an insensitive, agitating windbag, and at worst an antagonistic bigot.

After his comments, the school has since closed off all funding of KoalaTV and dozens of other UCSD-based media outlets, including print publications and radio stations, which makes you wonder what “principle of free speech” is being exhibited because of Gregorian’s remarks.

Two days later, after the university planned a campus-wide teach-in, members of the Black Student Union led a walkout. They were unsatisfied with the university’s response to the incident, with one member saying, “The university and our community will not be fixed by a two-hour teach-in.”

While that is undoubtedly true, is it not a safe argument that much more could have been learned, discussed, and maybe even put on a path of resolution, through open and educated dialogue than by creating even more animosity with a militant protest? I understand those students’ frustrations, but don’t you have to start somewhere with any kind of conflict resolution? Last time I checked, there isn’t some cosmic magic wand that you can wave to all-of-a-sudden cure people’s intolerance.

If tensions across campus weren’t already high enough, they reached a boiling point last week when a noose — one of the abhorrent symbols of the gross injustice, violence and oppression that black people endured for many years in America – was found hanging in the school’s Geisel Library.

On top of that, on Tuesday, the university issued a statement saying they were investigating the discovery of a pillowcase, which had been fashioned into a Ku Klux Klan-style hood, which was placed atop a statue outside of the Geisel Library late Monday night.

It was later learned that the noose was left by a student, a minority student at that, who later apologized in a letter written and published in The Guardian, UCSD’s campus newspaper.

“As a minority student who sympathizes with the students that have been affected by the recent issues on campus, I am distraught to know that I have unintentionally added to their pain,” the student wrote.

The student claims that she and her friends were “playing with a rope” when one of them tied it into a noose.

“I innocently marveled at his ability to tie a noose, without thinking of any of its connotations or the current racial climate at UCSD. I left soon after with one of my friends for Geisel to study, still carrying the rope,” she wrote. “After a bit of studying I picked up the rope to play with, and ended up hanging it by my desk. It was a mindless act and stupid mistake. When I got up to leave, a couple hours later, I simply forgot about it.”

Hmmmm … forgive my skepticism.

I know I certainly like playing with nooses all the time while I’m studying, right after I’m done scrawling pentagrams on my notebooks and folding origami swastikas.

These latest acts, it seems, were merely pitiful, attention-seeking attempts at perverse humor, rather than mindless acts of carelessness.

So where are we, the general public, left in pondering the events of the last two weeks that have sullied the reputation of highly-ranked public institution?

Let us not forget the source of all of this.

What if Washington had chosen to throw his vile party at another school, say UC Irvine, or Cal State-San Marcos? It’s likely that there would have been the same public firestorm on those campuses, likely the same foolish pranks that followed, the same stringent adherence to free speech, and the same outcry from those discriminated-against individuals and groups.

If that had happened, would the scant 2 percent of black students at UCSD feel any more unsafe and victimized today than they did in January? Or at any time last year?

If there is really an abiding sense, as black students at UCSD claim, of marginalization (or at worst, outright racism) that is exhibited toward them, then I’m glad that these events have held up the mirror to this injustice. Often times it takes controversy and public shaming to lead to positive change.

(Now here comes the big ‘but’ …)

But, if these are solitary incidents that, while completely inappropriate and insensitive, have become exponentially worse given the current climate, then perhaps it’s time that people see this for what it is: an unfortunate situation that was caused by one man’s tactless and offensive beliefs, crude humor, and inflated sense of self-worth and importance.

San Diego, and specifically UCSD, are now in the spotlight because of it. And that’s an injustice in and of itself.

Eric Yates is SDNN deputy managing editor. E-mail: eric.yates(at)sdnn.com or follow him on Twitter @eyates12.