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Racist Attacks at Syracuse University Spark Controversy, Fear

Students rally against white supremacy at Syracuse University in New York, Nov. 20, 2019.

Students at Syracuse University, in northern New York state, have been given permission to leave campus early for next week’s Thanksgiving break, because of a spate of racist threats on campus that have left students, staff and faculty spooked about possible violent attacks.

Meanwhile, a group of protesting students known as #NotAgainSU has staked out the student wellness center, calling for a stronger university response to the attacks. They say the school has a history of minimizing racial attacks. A group of 19 faculty members said the same, in a letter to the editor published in the university newspaper The Daily Orange.

The attacks were varied. Racist graffiti attacking African Americans and Asians had been scrawled on two separate floors of a freshman dormitory. A Nazi swastika was found carved into the snow on campus. In all, a dozen instances of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti have been found on or adjacent to the campus serving about 22,500 students.

Students rally against white supremacy at Syracuse University in New York, Nov. 20, 2019.
Students rally against white supremacy at Syracuse University in New York, Nov. 20, 2019.

Saturday night, a group of fraternity members on campus yelled racial epithets at an African American student. The campus newspaper reports at least one other incident in which an Asian student was verbally assaulted with a racist slur.

There were also reports that a white supremacist manifesto was deposited on student devices via AirDrop at Syracuse’s Bird Library earlier this week, although police say they have yet to find a single student who actually received the manifesto.

On Tuesday, Genevieve Garcia de Mueller, a faculty member who is both Jewish and Mexican, reported receiving an email containing an anti-Semitic message. She reported the email to campus security and canceled her classes for the day.

“I consistently see this narrative on campus that’s trying to diminish what’s happening,” she told The New York Times this week. “I don’t see a plan ... for any sort of systemic change.”

University responds

Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud spoke to the University Senate — the student decision-making body — Wednesday about the incidents. He said local police believe the graffiti is the work of between one and five people whose identities are still not clear.

The four Syracuse students who were yelling racial slurs have been suspended and all fraternities’ social events have been canceled for the rest of the semester. The manifesto story, Syverud said, seems to have been a rumor that got out of hand.

“It was apparent that this rumor was probably a hoax, but that reality was not communicated clearly and rapidly enough to get ahead of escalating anxiety,” he said. “These incidents have caused students rightly to be afraid.”

The chancellor said he has asked university officials to relax school rules and schedules to allow students to cope with their emotions and still complete the semester’s work. He also said the university has formed response teams that will, in the future, be available around the clock for such incidents as they occur.

He also announced the school will allocate at least $1 million for a new curriculum on diversity issues.

Students rally against white supremacy at Syracuse University in New York, Nov. 20, 2019.
Students rally against white supremacy at Syracuse University in New York, Nov. 20, 2019.

Students want more

For many students, however, that is not enough.

Jewel Jackson, a junior and columnist for The Daily Orange, wrote recently: “These ‘solutions’ are attempts by the university to save face and only convey to the students of color that SU officials don’t care about us.”

She said the university has failed to react strongly enough to similar incidents in the past.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed. On Tuesday, he said the university’s response was not enough and called on its board of trustees to hire an independent monitor.

Alum Lindsey Decker tweeted on Tuesday: “I witnessed racist incidents at Syracuse as a grad student. As an alum who is no longer in the precarious position of being an adjunct or student at the university, I feel I can finally publicly use my voice.” She was apologizing for the number of tweets and retweets she had posted about the situation at Syracuse.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who attended law school at Syracuse, tweeted Wednesday that he was “deeply disturbed” by the news from his alma mater. He added: “We are truly in a battle for the soul of this nation, and it requires all of us to stand up together as a country against racism and bigotry.”

Students have said they are afraid to walk alone on campus. The school’s department of public safety has increased its patrols and added shuttle services and safety escorts to protect students traversing the campus. Some professors have canceled classes or held them online.

Reports from campus say it is unusually quiet, as many students have gone home early for the Thanksgiving holiday. The crowd of students occupying the wellness center is reported to have thinned out. Student journalist Ricky “Reports” Sayer tweeted late Thursday that the protesters plan to donate their stockpiled food to local food pantries.

But he noted that doesn’t necessarily mean their protest is over.