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A Statement from President Casteen on Recent Racial Incidents

September 20, 2005

Dear Colleagues:

During the last several weeks, our African-American students have been the targets of verbal abuse and harassment whose severity has become a matter of serious concern to our students, to their... families, to the Board of Visitors, and to me. The Faculty Senate denounced this campaign of abuse in a statement issued on Monday. I have written and spoken about it on several occasions and in various forums, including a statement delivered on Friday at 5 p.m. from the Rotunda steps.

This is to let you know what I know about these episodes and ask you to express your support for our students who have been subjected to this treatment. Specifically, I ask teaching faculty to make a brief personal statement at the next meeting of each of your courses about your view of the unacceptability of racial harassment or abuse, indeed of any kind of harassment or abuse, within the University community. Further, I am asking all of you—staff and faculty—to take a personal stand and to make sure that all of our students know your position on these matters.

These verbal assaults have been sudden and vicious—attacks intended to intimidate and isolate their victims. They are distinctly racial in character—name calling, demeaning, threatening. The abusers have used the crudest language, and in some cases the starkest kinds of intimidation, and they have skulked away into the night or sped off in pickup trucks and cars. None has wanted to face the students whose sense of security she or he has shaken, perhaps destroyed. The words used have been vicious and unquestionable in their intent. The student who encounters hate words written on her or his door, left on a note placed on the windshield of a car, scrawled across a restroom wall, or flung from a speeding vehicle has every reason to expect you and me to speak out, to express support and concern, to state our own convictions clearly enough that no one can be confused about our revulsion toward the abuser and our fellow-feeling for the victims.

These victims have done nothing to invite or provoke this treatment. They have simply gone about the business of being students in a university dedicated to the illimitable freedom of the human mind. They have attended their classes, written their papers, worked late in libraries and laboratories, participated in gospel choirs, in discussion groups, and in public events. No student deserves this treatment.

It seems to me that abuse of various kinds occur in this and other communities every day. It may be that in some communities, leaders, as faculty members are leaders here, can step aside and say that it happens, that people have to learn to live with it. And it seems true to me that others—gay persons, women who may be in any number of ways abused, innocent persons stigmatized in some way by national or global events or prejudices—in this and any community, have legitimate complaints about intolerance. They also deserve the compassion of the academy. But at this time, my appeal to you is very specific. Stepping aside when students are at risk is not our practice here. Engaging issues directly and with our names and identities clearly declared is leadership belonging to a tradition best known to our culture as the custom of scholars confronting the intolerable. This issue, as we begin our academic year, belongs to everyone in our community. It cannot belong only to the victimized, whatever their heritage or identity. During these weeks, the cry for help and solidarity that has resounded most compellingly, has come from African-American students and their families, women and men whose contributions and successes all of us know and cherish. Others have legitimate complaints here and elsewhere, but this complaint and my appeal for your help have to do with abuse of our African-American students. No member of this community can believe the principles by which we define ourselves, no matter what our roles here, yet tolerate silently this campaign of intimidation and harassment.

Board members, students, faculty and staff members, and others have agreed this week to wear black ribbons as a silent statement of support for these students who have been abused. Ribbons are available throughout the University, and they will be distributed to persons who attend the Homecoming football game on Saturday. Students, Board members, and others will encourage our guests who attend the game to wear the ribbons as a reminder of where we stand as a community. Supplies of ribbons will be available outside all of the entry gates. If you want to come and help, we will welcome you.

The police and the FBI have investigated each event as it has occurred. Their work is continuing. The Alumni Association has offered a reward to be paid to any person whose information leads to the arrest and conviction of those engaged in "racial acts of vandalism, threats or other criminal misconduct" on or adjacent to University property, directed against any minority student. The student affairs deans and many others have been directly involved in supporting the students and their parents, who are (as any one of us would be) rightly alarmed by these developments. The parents and many of the students are working actively in this effort. Wallet cards will be issued shortly so that every student will know to report events immediately when they occur and also know how to make a report: dial 911 and remember details as accurately as possible. Even two or three numbers from a license plate, combined with the color of a vehicle, can help the police do their work.

You can help deliver this message to our students as well.

Thank you.

John T. Casteen III
President