LOS ANGELES – Swastikas, nooses, a KKK hood, graffiti, epithets and jeers.
An ugly spate of bias incidents has crossed several University of California campuses over the past month, causing consternation, outcry and fear that bigotry is alive among the young and educated.
Students have protested and administrators have condemned, but the question remains of what lies behind the sudden parade of prejudice: a growing climate of insensitivity on campuses or immature kids yearning for peer acceptance and attention.
“My guess is some of all of those things,” said interim UC Provost Lawrence H. Pitts. “I’d like to believe it’s really an extreme minority. It does suggest there’s some underlying feeling of intolerance in our community.”
The incidents have roiled several campuses in the 175,000-student state university system, which is one of the nation’s most respected and diverse.
At UC San Diego, black students were offended by an off-campus “Compton Cookout” party that mocked ghetto stereotypes, a noose and KKK-style hood found on campus and a student making racially derogatory remarks on a student-run TV station.
At UC Davis, swastikas cropped up and the gay and lesbian center was vandalized with graffiti. At UC Santa Cruz, a picture of a noose was scrawled. On the Irvine campus, the Israeli ambassador was heckled to the extent that he was forced to end a speech early.
“Part of the problem is that people don’t realize it’s insensitive,” said Joelle Gamble, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles. “They see it as free speech.”
Free speech is a buzzword on college campuses, which tend to be regarded as “marketplaces of ideas” where students are encouraged to express opinions freely, said Brian Levin, director of Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
But sometimes opinions can cross into offensiveness.
At UC Irvine, pro-Palestinian students saw the jeering of the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren as a political statement, but administrators saw it as intolerance, albeit of a political viewpoint. Eleven students were arrested.
Experts point out that some racist incidents are likely sophomoric pranks as students cross the bridge from adolescence to adulthood.
Although students are expected to behave as adults, some still possess a teenager’s impulsiveness and desire to impress peers, which can lead to boorish behavior.
Then there are the copycats who enjoy the ensuing uproar and media attention. “It’s the jackass phenomenon,” Cal State’s Levin said. “Most are not hard-core bigots, but some are.”
Levin and others note that bias incidents occur on campuses all over the country, and college hate crimes are likely vastly underreported.