Students and faculty at the State University of New York at New Paltz are planning to hold several forums after a number of racially insensitive signs were found around campus, triggering a police investigation and a campus-wide letter from the university president.
Editor's Note: This story contains racially charged language that some readers may find objectionable.
After celebrating Black Solidarity Day on Nov. 8, students found a sign reading 'Colored Only' above a drinking fountain in a campus building.
"I couldn't believe it was there," SUNY New Paltz senior Ayanna Thomas told The Huffington Post. "I was very appalled. To me that's blatant racism and shouldn't be taken lightly."
Thomas said she and her friend Jonathan Espinoza, who originally saw the sign, took a picture and posted it on Facebook to raise awareness. She said her friends were shocked by the photo and its presence on their campus because of the school's reputation as a diverse and progressive community.
But as Karanja Keita Carroll, chairman of the Black Studies Department, told The Huffington Post, "What's said and what's done [on campus] are two very different things."
Although campus police have launched an investigation and university president Donald Christian condemned the incident in a lengthy note to the community, more offensive signs later appeared elsewhere on campus.
Two other signs were found in a dormitory building that read "lynch niggers Nov. 10th at 7:30."
Thomas, who serves as Vice President of Academic Affairs on the student governing board, said this second discovery had some students fearing for their safety. "There were a few students who said they felt uncomfortable and they didn't want to stay there," she said. "It's horrible that students should have to feel unsafe in their own residence."
The perpetrators also used social media to spread their hateful message. Thomas said students found a Tumblr page that posted a photo of the original "Colored Only" sign with a caption that said, "My friend is trying to start a race war at New Paltz." The page has since been deactivated.
Both Thomas and Carroll said they had never experienced anything like this at the school, and although the entire community is upset, they are focused on finding a solution.
"Students and faculty across the board are very much offended by the fact that someone had the nerve to do this," Carroll said. "But we recognize that this is symptomatic of the realities of living in a racist society. For me and my colleagues, this is not the time to be angry, it's a teachable moment."
Thomas echoed his sentiments and said students of all races are banding together through an initiative led by the Black Student Union and the Student Association, the undergraduate governing body. She added that although students of color only make up five percent of the student body, they are particularly influential on campus. Five out of seven of the student association executive board members are minorities, and Thomas said administrators have been genuinely responsive to their concerns.
"It was a good thing to know that our president is concerned about the issue and that's he's willing to work with student leaders," she said.
Students held a forum on Nov. 17 to discuss the issue and show solidarity, which will be followed by a faculty forum and a campus-wide forum after the Thanksgiving holiday. The Black Studies department also issued a letter to the president after the first event, asking him to make major changes during his tenure:
SUNY New Paltz needs more than just diversity and acceptance. The very concept of diversity was popularized by the U.S. Supreme Court to satisfy the needs of elite post secondary schools seeking to improve the education of their majority white students by giving them contact with students of color while leaving the systems of oppression, power and white hegemony in place. Diversity simply means race mixing, usually for the benefit of white students. The real tragedy of America generally and SUNY New Paltz specifically has been the substitution of diversity for the real remedial programs that were needed for a nation less than five decades removed from the official Jim Crow system of racial caste. Dismantling Jim Crow demands some sort of "remedy," "equality," "repair," "integration," "anti-discrimination," "fairness," and "justice." These are the demands of real change. Diversity is non-remedial was never designed as a cure for disparate treatment or impact.
It is our hope that over the coming weeks and months your administration will use this tragic event to begin the process of, what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, "substantive equality," which is so desperately needed on this campus.
SUNY New Paltz isn't the only campus to confront racial injustices recently. Classes were canceled at Williams College so that the community could discuss their outrage after a student found the words "All niggers must die" written on a dormitory wall.
At New Paltz, Thomas said she hopes the community will open its eyes and acknowledge the existence of racism both on their campus and in their society, and that students will take action at their school and elsewhere.
"First, I would like the person to be prosecuted, because it's definitely a hate crime," she said. "But some students around the area said, 'Ignore it and take it down.' I want the campus community to come together and know that if it affects some students, it should affect all of them."
See photos of the signs below.