Colleges less liberal than you'd think

ST. LOUIS – It’s tempting to think of college campuses as islands of enlightenment, places where students embrace new ideas, people and cultures without the specter of hate hanging overhead.

Tempting. But it’s not always the case, as demonstrated by events on campuses across the nation in recent months.

There were cotton balls scattered outside the black cultural center at University of Missouri-Columbia. There have been racial slurs and a threat of lynching at St. Louis University. There was a swastika scrawled on a bathroom wall near a Jewish studies center at the University of Miami.

There were death threats against black students left on a bathroom wall at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio. And a white fraternity sparked an uproar at the University of California San Diego, when it sponsored a ghetto-themed “Compton Cookout” to mock Black History Month.

To be sure, such events have always been part of the American landscape. But campus and diversity experts say they’ve seen a surge in the past year, poking yet another hole in what increasingly appears to be the myth of a post-racial America.

“I guarantee that any given campus in the nation will have small incidents like these in a given year,” said Darnell Cole, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California who studies diversity issues.

But Cole and others see a correlation between a rise in campus hate crimes and the increasingly nasty exchanges taking place among our nation’s politicians and leaders – on both sides of the political spectrum. It would be naive, they say, to not expect that discord to show up on campuses.

The nation’s first black presidency, he said, has simply provided “kindling for the fire.”

It’s difficult to know just how much hate crime is occurring on college campuses. Justice Department data suggest that 12 percent of hate crimes occur on either college or school campuses. The numbers aren’t broken down to show how much of it happens at universities. And experts say many instances of racial slurs are never reported.

Even so, there seems to be a pattern.

“At least anecdotally, there seems to have been an increase. But we don’t know for certain because reporting is so bad,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

A search for examples need go no further than St. Louis University, which has witnessed a series of incidents in recent months. Racial slurs have been found scrawled on walls or shouted at black students. A student in early February reported being threatened with lynching during a confrontation with another student. And a cross belonging to a support group for gays and lesbians was stolen.

University investigations have resulted in punishments handed down in two incidents, but officials say privacy laws restrict how much they can say.

“All I can tell you is that two of the students who were involved are no longer enrolled at the university,” said Kent Porterfield, the university’s vice president for student development.

But even the lesser transgressions can cause hurt feelings and, for some students, doubts about their future on the campus.

Such was the case for Erin Whitley, a freshman at SLU who learned earlier this year of a Facebook group for members of her dorm floor. Among the discussion threads on the social networking site was a post about things overheard on the floor: “There’s nothing I hate more than black people,” it said.

The comment was later deleted. And several people involved apologized to her in writing. But the damage was done: “I thought we were all really close. But then to see their true feelings. It made me feel really uncomfortable.”

Lori Brown, associate professor of sociology at North Carolina’s Meredith College, said campus dynamics are further complicated by students of different backgrounds not always understanding one another and how painful their actions might be.

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