The ringleader of a series of violent and racist acts committed against a 17-year-old San Jose State University (SJSU) student recently pled “not guilty” to misdemeanor charges of hate crime and battery. The student, who is white, lived in the SJSU dorms and terrorized his black roommate with the help of their two other roommates, who are also white. Of the four students charged, two have pled “not guilty” at separate arraignments in the last month, with the third student’s scheduled for this week.
The four students allegedly fastened a bike lock around their black housemate’s neck and told him they “lost the keys,” and locked him in his room. They verbally demeaned him — using nicknames like “three-fifths” and switching to “fraction” after the student, now 18, requested they stop.
According to a San Jose Mercury News article, the defendant’s lawyer “urged people not to typecast his client,” asserting the defendant was “the only white player on his former soccer team” and his family is “far from racist.”
While the defendant’s lawyer suggested he was “not defending these insensitive, stupid acts by immature young men” he added he didn’t think anyone who knows his client would believe him to be racist.
If plastering their shared living space with racial slurs, Nazi symbols — including photos of Hitler — and a confederate flag is not racist, then we don’t know what is.
What’s worse is that a 2011 campus climate survey that was never published, but recently surfaced, reports troubling and sometimes racist behavior coming from professors, coaches and other students toward students of color.
Gary Daniels, SJSU student and chairman of Black Unity Group said black student groups on campus have been trying to meet with Mohammad Qayoumi, SJSU’s president, for a year. They sent ideas for making black students feel safer, but to no avail.
Campuses and dorms are places where students should feel safe. It is the duty of a university, as well as its students, to ensure all spaces on campus provide a sense of security, both physically and emotionally. This kind of security can only be maintained by taking incidences of racism and other abusive acts seriously and dealing with them decisively.
According to the San Jose Mercury News, when SJSU residential assistants found a confederate flag in a bedroom window, they merely asked its owners to take it down, but no further action was taken. The confederate flag is inextricably tied to the hateful, racist and slave-owning past of this nation, and its open display is deeply offensive to all Americans. Weak-kneed responses send the message that combating racism is not a priority.
Similarly, a “not guilty” verdict would be an injustice to every African-American student or minority who experienced discrimination on a campus, but was not able to report it or see their antagonizers held accountable. Courts ignoring the broader social implications of letting hate crimes go unpunished only endanger the physical and emotional safety of future victims and wrongfully bolster the legal protections of future criminals.
Whether justice for the family and the black community at SJSU for the hate crimes committed includes jail time, expulsion, a genuine apology, an expressed willingness to make amends or all of the above, the four white students should not be painted merely as “immature young men” who committed “insensitive, stupid acts,” but as criminals who must take full responsibility for their actions.
On a campus that supposedly celebrates student advocacy of diversity and social justice with a commemorative statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos — SJSU alumnae and members and medalists of the 1968 U.S. Olympic track team—we urge the administration to not let this symbol of Black Power be one of false unity. With only 3 percent of the students at SJSU identifying as African-American, there needs to be an increased priority toward ensuring the safety of its black students.