Racism Is Not a Prank

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A white student who locked a bike lock around a black San Jose State University student’s neck, hung posters of Adolf Hitler and a Confederate flag in his dorm room, and was known to use the n-word isn’t racist because he had a black girlfriend. He’s not racist because calling Donald Williams Jr. “three-fifths” and “fraction” and locking him in his room and bathroom was just a prank that went poorly. He’s not racist because, as the saying goes, boys will be boys.

That’s what the all-white jury decided in Williams’ case against three white SJSU students he lived with in 2013. They found three students guilty of misdemeanor battery after “offensively touching” Williams during the bike-lock prank. But on the hate crime charges, one was found not guilty, and the jury was split for the other two defendants.

A prosecutor in the case said she had to prove the three students “targeted DJ [Williams Jr.] in whole or part because of his race, because he was different,” not that they were “racist or that they hated DJ because of his race.” Somehow, that still wasn’t clear to the jury. To belittle Williams’ experience to “offensive touching” implies that race had nothing to do with this incident — which is unfathomable given the evidence of the case.

This case hits close to home for UC Santa Cruz. Williams is UCSC’s Cultural Arts and Diversity Director Don Williams’ son. Don Williams has empowered and inspired students of color through theater arts for more than two decades on our campus. He has worked to create a space where students of color feel safe and increase cultural competency so incidents like these don’t happen. That his own son faced such mistreatment only underscores the insidious presence of racism still lingering today.

In fall 2015, 3.37 percent of SJSU’s student body was black, barely higher than the 1.9 percent at UCSC. It may seem that “pranks” like the one at SJSU don’t happen at UCSC, but history says otherwise.

In 2010, shortly after a noose was found hanging from a light fixture at UC San Diego, graffiti of a noose with the words “San Diego” and “lynch” was found on a bathroom door in UCSC’s Earth and Marine Sciences Building. The next year, a swastika was drawn in a Stevenson bathroom.

The incidents are even more recent, too. Last year, posters of prominent black world leaders in Stevenson’s Rosa Parks African American Theme House were torn down. This year black students were met with hostility and threats as they marched through campus in solidarity against racist incidents at Mizzou. One person on Yik Yak wrote: “People crying racist these days are like the boy who cried wolf. You cry racist for the most insignificant shit that people don’t take it seriously anymore.”

These incidents have shown that violence and hostility exist at UCSC. Clearly this campus is intolerant, and the predominately white university and city can make for an unwelcoming and dangerous environment for students of color.

Public schools started to desegregate in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, and 10 years later, the Civil Rights Act was passed. In the 50 plus years since, countless incidents of racism have been reported on school campuses ranging from microaggressions to physical harm. This is because the problem runs deeper than any one campus administration. Such violence happens across the country because the real problem is a nation built on white supremacy where racism is rooted deeply within all systems and institutions, from educational to judicial.

The defense lawyers tried to absolve the defendants of guilt by saying “these are 20-year-old boys who acted inappropriately and insensitively, but they are not violent individuals. I’ve had cases in which the parties were a lot more violent but didn’t get four months.”

But these three white students aren’t just “boys” incapable of violence. They’re adults who should take full responsibility for their actions. Infantilizing the students who subjected Williams to such dehumanizing treatment only aids in trivializing racism in higher education.

To call students who clamp a U-lock around a classmate’s neck and trap him in his room “not violent individuals” is a misguided and ignorant. A criminal record is not necessary to deem an individual violent and their age does not bar them from reprimand when they demonstrate such violence. Physically forcing someone into situations against their will is the inherent nature of violence, while using damaging or hateful rhetoric is a clear indication of malice.

For the lawyer to then suggest he’s had “more violent” cases where defendants were sentenced to minimal jail time only attests to the larger issue of a racist judicial system.

The prosecutor sought to convey that “prejudice is not a prank.” The outcome of the trial, however, only solidified the very opposite. Using the guise of a prank doesn’t justify actions that in any other situation would be branded as blatantly racist.

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