On Oct. 21, two 21-year-old white UConn students were arrested and charged with a hate crime after video surfaced of them repeatedly saying a racial slur while walking by an on-campus apartment building.
One might be tempted to shrug off the incident as the drunken antics of post-adolescent minds, or to dismiss it because it doesn't appear that the students knew anyone was watching or listening, let alone filming, as they walked through a deserted parking lot in the middle of the night.
But character is what we do when nobody is watching. And as many students have said, racist attitudes are pervasive on campus. This video likely did not capture the only two people on campus who think such denigrating language is permissible, or even funny.
"I wouldn't expect someone to be racist to my face, but I know it's there," Nijaé Flowers, a 21-year-old senior from West Haven, told Courant reporter Eliza Fawcett this week.
This incident is abhorrent, unacceptable and should not go without punishment. But while criminalizing the behavior may make a clear statement, it ultimately will not solve the problem. An arrest teaches these two men that they should not say racial slurs aloud. UConn now needs to go further and use this as a moment to teach its students why hate speech is so damaging and what underlying attitudes that sort of behavior reveals.
One of the arrested students issued a non-apology apology: "I sincerely apologize if we had offended anyone," said Jarred Karal, of Plainville, according to the arrest warrant affidavit. "This was not our intentions at all. We were acting dumb, idiotic and childish. We should have never used that type of language at all. It was not our intent to broadcast what was said to any one person, we were just being immature. I sincerely apologize again for our actions."
But Mr. Karal misses the point. The problem is not the actions that were recorded on video. The problem is that too many people mistakenly believe racist behavior is somehow not a reflection of underlying racist attitudes. That lesson, clearly, needs to be taught more broadly on campus.
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The university chapter of the NAACP released a list of demands, including the creation of a mandatory first-year course on diversity and the hiring of more African American administrators, faculty, staff and police officers. The university should take the demands seriously.
This is a critical moment for UConn and its new president, Thomas Katsouleas. The episode has tapped into a deeper well of disrespect and resentment and does not exist in isolation.
"If you're the only black person, you just feel small," said Olukwakemi Balogun, a 19-year-old sophomore from North Haven.
No one attending the state's flagship university should feel that way.
UConn needs to use this as an opportunity to teach and educate about cultural differences, privilege and the damaging effects of hate speech. It's time to stop looking at situations as if people are only being offended and not being hurt. It is time we start figuring out how to talk about tough issues without minimizing the pain or creating fear of retaliation or recrimination. It's time for brave and honest discussions, reassessing biases and listening to other points of view.
If you can't do that at a university, where can you?
— Hartford (Connecticut) Courant