Following Donald Trump’s win in the presidential election on Nov. 8, a wave of hate crimes and hate speech has swept across the nation. On Tuesday, Nov. 22, Vassar became one of the latest sites of these incidents. An anonymous student reported to Vassar’s Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) that they had found graffiti of a swastika and the words “Heil Trump” in a men’s bathroom stall on the ground floor of Sanders Classroom, which houses the Departments of English, Chinese and Japanese, and Greek and Roman Studies. Safety and Security quickly removed the graffiti and students were alerted about the situation on the morning of Nov. 23 by an email from Chair of BIRT and Associate Dean of the College Edward Pittman.
The graffiti was blatantly antisemitic, as it featured both Holocaust iconography and a reference to the Nazi salute of “Heil Hitler.” President of the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU) Abigail Johnson ’17 reflected via email, “I felt strongly disappointed and disheartened when I [found out about the graffiti]. It felt like another extension of the grief I know many people have been carrying since Trump was elected. This kind of imagery and hate speech is not just an attack on Jews but an attack on many marginalized groups.”
Chair of Jewish Studies Peter Antelyes commented in an email, “[I am] sad but not surprised. Anti-Semitism isn’t new, not in the world outside Vassar nor within our walls. Nor should we see this incident as separate from the public acts of racism and misogyny encouraged by the Trump campaign.”
Indeed, in just the first 10 days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has been tracking post-election hate crimes nationwide, collected reports of 867 instances of hateful speech, harassment and violence against people of color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community (Southern Poverty Law Center, “Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election,” 11.29.2016). 140 of these cases occurred at universities and colleges. SPLC has thus far only released data concerning incidents occurring from Nov. 9 through Nov. 18, but the number has almost certainly grown in the two weeks since, as we have seen firsthand here at Vassar.
What’s more, a Kenyan crisis-tracking startup called Ushahdi has created an interactive map of reports of 279 post-election hate crimes in the United States, as well as eight abroad. Each point on the map gives details of the report when selected. The map can be viewed here: USAElectionMonitor.ushahidi.io/views/map.
According to Ushahdi’s map, racist and Islamophobic graffiti was found in a bathroom stall at the nearby State University of New York at New Paltz, and similar incidents have occurred at dozens of other colleges and universities all over the United States, including Harvard University, the University of Califor- nia at Berkeley and Arizona State University, among others.
Many of these episodes have escalated to physical violence, some even resulting in death. On Nov. 12, Will Sims, an African-American musician, was robbed, beaten and shot to death in El Sobrante, CA. Daniel Porter-Kelly, a resident of the nearby Richmond, CA, has been arrested and charged with robbery, murder and a hate crime, and local police are currently searching for two suspected accomplices, Ray Simons and Daniel Ortega. All three men are white, and police have stated that their motivation for killing Sims was racial (NBC Bay Area, “Musician Killed in El Sobrante Was Targeted Because of His Race,” 11.23.2016).
On college campuses, in addition to hateful graffiti and derogatory epithets, students and faculty who are primarily not white, male, heterosexual, cisgender or Christian have been shoved, spat on, and otherwise physically attacked (The New York Times, “Campuses Confront Hostile Acts Against Minorities After Donald Trump’s Election,” 11.10.2016).
According to Ushahidi’s post-election monitor, for instance, a young woman at the University of California at Santa Cruz was reportedly hit on the head with a rock and called anti-LGBTQ+ slurs for ignoring several men’s advances. Furthermore, a Muslim student at San Jose State University was choked with her own hijab (CBS SF Bay Area, “Assailant Chokes Muslim San Jose State Student With Victim’s Hijab,” 11.10.2016).
On Nov. 23, Interim President Jonathan Chenette sent an email to the student body detailing his decision to endorse on behalf of the College a letter addressed to Trump. He explained, “Late last week, I joined a group of more than 100 college and university presidents in writing to the President-elect urging him to condemn the hate speech and acts of violence being perpetrated across our country. It is a first step, one I know will be followed by continued debate, discussion, and activism on the part of our students, our faculty, and our staff.” He added in an interview via email, “I was deeply concerned that some of the hateful post-election graffiti and vandalism that we have seen nationwide has come to our campus.”
Pittman added, “Hate incidents have occurred on other campuses and we certainly don’t want that to become a phenomenon at Vassar. I like to think that we are a different kind of community, and so an important response to hate speech is good speech: responding quickly and encouraging members of the community that [this is] not the kind of speech we value at Vassar.”
Director of Safety and Security Arlene Sabo explained Vassar’s policy on hate speech in an email: “Our campus has strong and effective policies barring discrimination (and discriminatory harassment) on the basis of race, color, religion or religious belief, citizenship status, sex, marital status, disability, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, military service or affiliation, genetic information, age or any other characteristics protected by law. When hate speech crosses the line into harassment or a hate crime, it is no longer protected speech.” Despite that, Sabo cautioned, hateful graffiti secretly left in a bathroom stall is almost impossible to attribute to a specific individual.
Dean of the College Christopher Roellke added via email, “I believe our policies [are] strong and are intended to promote safety and inclusivity for all members of the campus community. Anonymous hate speech, including on social media, is exceptionally difficult to manage and adjudicate. Having said that, I think it is important that the College continue to be diligent in its enforcement of policies in an attempt to eradicate this behavior.”
Pondering whether there’s anything more Vassar can do, Johnson said, “I think that the administration needs to start preparing for how a Trump presidency will hurt Vassar students and what actual steps they can start taking. One concrete example that has been on my mind is that it is long overdue for Vassar to hire an advisor for Muslim students. From personal experience as a Jewish student at Vassar, I have leaned on our advisors over the years and I think that in next four years students will need even more support. Sending emails to the entire campus is fine, but hiring people who can and will develop personal relationships with students is even better.”
Antelyes detailed another proactive move Vassar could make. “The Administration as well as the faculty should seek to provide avenues in classes and meetings and informational sites for subjecting [incidents of hate speech] to critical analysis: for placing them in context, linking them to other forms of hatred and articulating the underlying social forces at work, and for exploring models and modes of activist response,” he said.
Chenette expressed a similar sentiment as Antelyes, commenting, “We should have teachins, guest lectures, residencies and other events where we can reflect collectively on [ways students can respond to hate speech].” He added, “The President’s Council on Diversity would welcome proposals for such events under the ‘Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences’ initiative. Email ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
As for the Vassar community, “[It’s up to us] to hold each other accountable for our actions and our speech, to be on the alert, to report and also to support to each other,” Pittman concluded. “As a community, we have to pull together in moments like this and make it clear that this is not speech or behavior we will tolerate.”