UCSD Party Called Horrible Act Of Racism
Friday, February 19, 2010
Is the off-campus party an indication of the attitudes of UCSD students? We discuss how state and local officials are responding to the so-called "Compton Cookout."
ALISON ST JOHN (Host): I’m Alison St John, sitting in for Gloria Penner, and I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. A UCSD fraternity party held earlier this week has been condemned by local and state officials as an act of racism. Is the off-campus party an indication of the attitudes of UCSD students? And the race is on for two County Board of Supervisors seats. Who will oppose longtime incumbents Bill Horn and Ron Roberts? Also, is the district attorney’s office violating due process or was there cause to challenge three San Diego County judges? The editors with me this morning are Ricky Young, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Thanks for being with us, Ricky.
RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Good morning, Alison.
ST JOHN: Andrew Donohue, editor of the voiceofsandiego.org. Always great to have you here, Andrew.
ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): Always good to see you, Alison.
ST JOHN: And Kent Davy, editor of the North County Times. Thanks so much for coming down, Kent.
KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): Good morning, Alison.
ST JOHN: And for those of you who would like to call in and join our discussion this morning, the number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 895-KPBS. So, a firestorm of outrage has erupted in the last few days over the so called Compton Cookout, that’s a party thrown by students at UCSD, which critics say is a shocking revelation of racism, sexism and hate. The party had a ghetto theme and is said to be mocking of black culture. UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox responded with a statement that read, ‘We strongly condemn this event and the blatant disregard of our campus values.’ But within hours of the news hitting the papers, the outrage had rolled on up to Sacramento, and yesterday state legislators weighed in. Here is Democratic Assembly member Isadore Hall, who represents Compton in Los Angeles.
ISADORE HALL (Assembly Member, State of California): In the days since this event took place, people throughout California and across this nation have contacted me, sharing their outrage that here we are in 2010 during Black History Month, college educated individuals at one of the finest public universities in California, could be responsible for such a blatant and horrible act of racism, sexism and hate.
ST JOHN: And then we also heard yesterday from our own Democratic State Senator Christine Kehoe. Here she is:
CHRISTINE KEHOE (State Senator, State of California): I strongly encourage UCSD to require Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity to denounce the behavior of some of their members. The university must ensure that the fraternity and any other organization that espouses this kind of behavior must strengthen their training and education curriculum to prevent racist and sexist behavior among their members and their administrators.
ST JOHN: So, Ricky, the Union-Tribune is the one that brought this story to our attention. And before we go any further, can you enlighten us as to the actual wording of the invitation that has sparked this controversy?
YOUNG: Sure. This was somebody’s idea, I guess, of a patriotic party for Presidents’ Day. They put out word that they’d have a ghetto-themed party and, you know, I’ll quote from some of this. The idea was for girls, quote, for those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks, ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes. You know, and it goes on from there almost like it was written by Don Imus. They have short, nappy hair and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors such as purple or bright red, just a number of stereotypical things. They go on and do the same thing for boys attending the party. They talk about foods that’ll be served, all of which was just extremely offensive, especially to the black students on campus who for years have been frustrated at low enrollment that’s not reflective of their numbers in the community.
ST JOHN: Well, now what would you say? Do you think this is an example of the media seizing on something, blowing it out of proportion? Or is it a story that sort of like, you know, rips the wallpaper off and reveals sort of deep cracks of racism on the campus?
YOUNG: Well, I can tell you, you know, I appreciate you giving us credit for breaking the story but we got many, many e-mails from people who had – you know, I think that some outraged kids saw this on Facebook and started circulating it, and many people came to us and said, you should do something about this. So it’s not necessarily something we jumped on for sensationalism so much as because the community was telling us this was important to them.
ST JOHN: So in some ways it’s a function of Facebook here playing a role that it might never have reached the light of day if it hadn’t been posted on Facebook.
YOUNG: Right, although to the credit of the mass media, you know, it would not have, certainly, been the subject of a news conference in Sacramento yesterday if somebody hadn’t picked up on it and seen it for being newsworthy.
ST JOHN: I think what makes this significant is the fact that only 2% of the students at UCSD are black and, you know, I guess that’s what makes this a real question, is is there a culture on campus that is discouraging African-Americans from even applying?
YOUNG: Well, that’s certainly been the response of the Black Student Union and others, saying that they’re feeling like it’s time to, after years of fighting, to try to increase African-American enrollment on campus, some of them are saying we’re going to throw up our hands and just transfer.
ST JOHN: And, Andrew, have you sort of gotten a sense that this is coming out of the blue or that this might be indicative of something deeper on the campus of UCSD?
DONOHUE: I think it’s hard to tell. I don’t have any indication there’s anything deeper but, like you said, it is – I think you can directly correlate it with the fact that only 2% of the student population is black on campus. If you did have, I think, a more diverse campus, you would probably have people a lot less likely to do something like this.
ST JOHN: Umm.
DONOHUE: They’d be a little bit – I think they’d probably be a little bit more worried that somebody would find out or somebody, you know…
ST JOHN: Umm…
DONOHUE: …that black students would show up at the party or something like that. I mean, the fact is, is if you are isolated and you’re not exposed to other – either other cultures or just other people, I think you’re – it’s a lot easier to engage in this sort of behavior.
ST JOHN: And, Kent, I mean, do you feel like Marye Anne Fox responded appropriately to the outrage?
DAVY: Sure, in a sense that she has condemned the party, has indicated that the university needs to make sure it’s doing a reasonable or a better job of, you know, educating about issues of racism. But I think it is important to remember a couple of things. One is the president of this fraternity apparently condemned the act so it is not in evidence that it was an official party somehow or another, it was a party off campus. I talked to a friend of mine, who teaches at UCSD, last night for a little while about this and I – because I don’t know the campus all that well personally, and said, you know, what’s your sense of is this – does this campus have a history of racism? And he said, no, he didn’t really think so, that it was principally a fact that the enrollment of blacks is so low and he – his point of view was, well, maybe it argues for going back to affirmative action. And I’m not…
ST JOHN: Umm…
DAVY: …necessarily willing to…
ST JOHN: Interesting point.
DAVY: …to push that idea. But it – I think Andrew’s point’s right. When you have such a lack of diversity in a culture, in a community like this, it’s easy for people to get pretty insensitive and indifferent to what might hurt somebody else’s feelings. One thing to note about this, though, whites are a minority also on that campus. It’s Asians who are the majority.
ST JOHN: 50% Asian, right. Yeah, it’s a good point. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call us. And we have Dana from UCSD on the line. Dana, thanks for calling.
DANA (Caller, UCSD): Yeah, thanks. So I’ve been monitoring these sort of e-mails going around on campus and talking to people about this past weekend. It seems to me that while it’s clear that this is quite potentially offensive, the language that was used, just responding to some of the things that were said already on the program, the language that was read is not something that these students wrote. They just copied and pasted it from a popular website called Urban Dictionary…
ST JOHN: Hmm…
DANA: …which, you know, the definition’s there of terms like ghetto chick, go ahead and look it up yourself. A lot of these definitions on the Urban Dictionary are over the top and designed to be, you know, sort of offensive, shock humor, and I think that, you know, clearly they’re appropriating cultural stereotypes that are portrayed in the mass media, on MTV and comedy shows in the past 20 years and, you know, they’re doing it in a spirit of, you know, albeit misguided but in a spirit of fun. It was a party, in fact, not a protest of Black History Month. I think it was a mistake. We should view it in that light. And rather than sort of accusing them of racism and sexism and hate, I mean, hate is clearly the wrong word, I can’t imagine – Also somebody said maybe they would worry if there were more black people, they would worry that a black person would show up to the party. I don’t think they would worry about that at all. I think they would be happy for a black person to show up and wear gold chains and basketball tee shirts and be in the spirit of their, you know – I guess I agree that it’s, you know, it’s bad taste to…
ST JOHN: Yes.
DANA: …use these stereotypes of Black History Month but I think that they made a mistake and we should just maybe avoid, you know, blowing this into some kind of angry reaction to (unintelligible, spoken over)…
ST JOHN: So, Dana, you’re a student, I take it, right?
DANA: What’s that?
ST JOHN: You are a student yourself at that – at UCSD?
DANA: Actually, I teach at UCSD but…
ST JOHN: You teach at UCSD, okay. And what would you think might be the appropriate response to something like this?
DANA: Well, I do think we should say, look, this was inappropriate. You know, it was insensitive, offensive, and, you know, we basically – And I don’t think we need to use words like condemnation and hate and racism. I think we need to say that this offended people and it was inappropriate and, you know, we basically condemn the choice of, you know, you know, the appropriation of these inoffens – these offensive stereotypes…
ST JOHN: Okay, well, Dana, thank you…
DANA: …at the time of Black History Month, which is, you know…
ST JOHN: Right.
DANA: …supposed to be not a sort of…
ST JOHN: Exactly.
DANA: ...thing that’s fairly levity, right?
ST JOHN: Yes. Well, Dana, thank you so much for calling in and giving us your perspective. Ricky, you have a reaction.
YOUNG: Well, that is a perspective that’s out there on campus and, you know, the first place I saw it was in the comments on our news stories where people can say things anonymously and went on and on about how people need to get a sense of humor and don’t be so PC and all this. To her credit, Eleanor also found a student to say that on the record with their name to it in yesterday’s story. I did want to note a sort of nuance in the campus response to this. The, you know, the first day when we were reporting it and it wasn’t out there in the public, the statement we got from them regarding the event was rather – kind of an open and shut thing because it wasn’t a UCSD-sanctioned event, they said, or run by a student organization, it doesn’t appear there was a technical violation of the student codes of conduct. At this point, we don’t have a reason to penalize them, they said. The next day, suddenly there was a, you know…
ST JOHN: Umm.
YOUNG: …once the story was in the paper and people were getting outraged, they were doing an investigation, they had talked to nine students, they’re following up to see if there’d been some violations of the codes of conduct to see if there was anything they could do because there was a lot of public pressure to do something.
ST JOHN: And there is going to be a teach-in, I believe, next Wednesday, is that right?
YOUNG: On the 24th, yeah.
ST JOHN: Okay, yeah.
DAVY: And to dist…
ST JOHN: Sorry, Kent.
DAVY: To distinguish between public pressure to investigate and do something and punish, you know, once you punish for speech, arguably, or association or…
ST JOHN: Well, some people are calling for the students to be suspended. You know, I mean, is that – How would you react to that kind of reaction?
DAVY: Well, I’m pretty much a free – First Amendment kind of backer. It strikes me that offensive speech is nonetheless protected by the First Amendment and I’m not sure that it makes sense to punish for speech.
ST JOHN: Umm.
YOUNG: Well, but do you abide by different rules when you’re on a college campus? I mean, is there any responsibility to, you know, in an institution of higher education have higher conduct? I don’t know.
DAVY: They weren’t on a college campus. Apparently, it was an off-campus and was not sanctioned by an official organization.
ST JOHN: And yet…
YOUNG: That is certainly what the campus was telling us at first.
ST JOHN: And yet, you know, they are students so to some degree they represent the culture on campus and the sensi – the level of sensitivity that is going on there.
DONOHUE: Yeah, if I could just address a little bit about what the caller had said. I thought, you know, this could be, I think, a lot less offensive if it wasn’t tied exactly to Black History Month. I mean, to just say – I think it would be a little bit different if somebody was just saying we’re having a, you know, a ghetto party. But the idea that it was actually mocking the celebration of Black History Month, the idea that this – and it’s been characterized this way in the media, too, that this is somehow some sort of reflection of black culture to begin with, this is a reflection of a stereotype and I think what’s more shocking to people is that this is actually happening in 2010 on a campus of higher learning in California, I mean, one of the – like the politician had said at the start of the show, in – at one of the most prestigious public universities in the nation. I think that’s what’s striking with people. I mean, this isn’t happening at some Ku Klux Klan rally in…
ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.
DONOHUE: …you know, in the middle of rural Georgia. I mean, this is at a very esteemed public university.
ST JOHN: But could it be a generational thing? I mean, the younger generation, as a whole, for example, are just not as concerned about gay issues as the older generation.
DONOHUE: Because they’re a lot more sensitive to it.
ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.
DONOHUE: They’re – I mean, they’ve been around – they’ve been around pop culture, they’ve been around, you know, friends that are gay, so they seem to have a lot more understanding of it. I think that’s why it’s a little bit more shocking, is that you would think that there would be a little bit more of a sensitivity and a little bit more of an understanding about, you know, just about their colleagues.
ST JOHN: Okay, we’ve got to take a break but we’ll be right back. We do have a lot of people calling in, predictably, on this subject, and we also have a state legislator calling in, too. So we’ll get her comment coming up right after this break. Stay with us here on the Editors Roundtable on KPBS.
ST JOHN: And you’re back with us here on the Editors Roundtable. I’m Alison St John, in for Gloria Penner today. Also with me are Ricky Young of the U-T, Andrew Donohue of voiceofsandiego.org, and Kent Davy of the North County Times. And we’re talking about the infamous Compton Cookout that happened off campus with some UCSD students earlier this week. We have a call, I believe, from Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, who’s got something to add to this discussion. Assemblywoman, thanks for calling in.
LORI SALDANA (Assembly Member, State of California): Hi, good morning, Alison. Well, thank you for discussing this. My concern has to do with the general safety on campus. If I’m a parent evaluating different universities I want my child to attend and I hear news reports along this – of this nature, how confident am I that my son or daughter will have a safe educational environment if these are the types of activities taking place? I don’t care if it’s not a school sponsored activity, it’s part of apparently campus culture near that campus. So I’m joining with my colleagues to talk with the chancellor, understand better why this type of an activity can be taking place and students feel it’s an acceptable way to treat their colleagues on campus. But just looking at it from a parent’s perspective…
ST JOHN: Umm…
SALDANA: …I find this very concerning.
ST JOHN: Thank you for that comment, Assemblywoman Saldana. And, Ricky, what do you think? She’s concerned about the safety on campus.
YOUNG: I certainly understand that. I do think we should keep in mind there’s 26,000 students on this campus and, you know, the number nine came out in terms of how many they have interviewed about the party. I don’t know how many went to the party. We don’t have necessarily good details about that. But, you know, I think we should be careful about painting the entire campus on the activities of this very small group.
ST JOHN: And I think you’re making a good point, though. And, I mean, the whole thing is based on some words on Facebook. We don’t know how respectful or lack of respect was shown on that part.
YOUNG: I mean, it may have been the party was a whole – a dud and no, you know, nobody showed up and nobody dressed up or, you know, I mean, we don’t really know.
ST JOHN: Kent.
DAVY: It also – it’s a reminder, vivid reminder, of the perils of social media and the idea in the computer age, you say or do something stupid like put out an invitation for a ghetto party…
ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.
DAVY: …and it’s going to follow you forever.
YOUNG: And I also think the reaction to this has been much more widespread on that campus than the actual event itself.
ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.
YOUNG: You know, which speaks to, I think, the broader attitudes there.
ST JOHN: Which could be a really important discussion, bearing in mind the very small number of African-American students there are on campus and why exactly is that? Is it just affirmative action? Is there something else going on? I just want to take one more call before we leave this. John in Hillcrest, thanks for calling. John, go ahead. Oh, looks like we’ve lost John. But I wanted to say that we did – I sort of took a little bit of a survey of the calls here, you know, we’ve got one caller saying students are just getting ridiculously silly, some people saying that what should’ve been done has already been done. Marye Anne Fox has already condemned it. They’re just saying it’s typical of frat boy attitude. An Italian-American saying that he gets insulted daily with reality shows. Seems like there’s a certain amount of understanding here from the callers we’re getting here today at KPBS, that this is sort of more indicative of perhaps a, you know, young, immature attitude to celebrating. But you want to just sort of wrap it up here, Rick? I mean, the question I think that we’re left with is, is that 2% of black students on UCSD, is there some reason why more are not applying? Is there something that needs to be discussed on campus?
YOUNG: Well, I think time will tell about that but this incident will certainly bring forward a fuller discussion of that issue and mainly do what some of the black students on campus have wanted for a long time, which is a sincere and more robust effort to increase those numbers.