By Julia Lerner
For over a year, Ketki Chauhan has called Somerset Hall at this university home. That changed earlier this semester when her friend found a confederate flag carved into the wall of their bathroom.
“I was so surprised and so shocked to even imagine that someone would do that,” said the sophomore psychology major. “Most people in the building know each other, and [this incident] made me sceptical of everyone else who lives here because of how they might react to me as a person of color. … What if someone targets me next?”
Students across this university, as well as students across the country, are experiencing a dramatic shift in political climate on campus due to the increase in hate-related incidents.
Hate crimes are classified as events where the action or conduct was illegal and motivated by maliciousness toward others due to race, religion, disability, gender, etc., while hate incidents are bias-related offenses that have not violated any laws. Hate incidents are protected under the First Amendment as free expression.
Justice Samuel Alito of the United States Supreme Court wrote, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought that we hate.”
Crimes like murder, defacing property and assault are all considered hate crimes, according to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a group protecting minority religions since 1988. “The difference between a hate incident and a hate crime is that a hate incident is a non-criminal act.”
“Hate crimes include any act which results in serious injury, any act which results in injury even if the injury is slight, any threat of violence that may be able to be carried out, and any act which results in property damage,” the council says.
In 2017, there has been a significant spike in reports of bias-related incidents. The Diamondback reported 27 hate bias incidents since the start of the fall semester — a sharp increase compared to previous semesters.
“This semester, there have been a slew of hate bias-related incidents in our residence halls and in our dining halls,” said junior journalism major Bryan Gallion. Gallion is also the Chief Information Officer and the Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Action Committee for the Residence Hall Association. “There have been swastikas spray painted on garbage cans outside residence halls, and there have been things written on whiteboards that can be seen as slurs related to minority communities. There was an incident in Anne Arundel where a student had offensive language written on his door. There was a swastika in Hagerstown. There was graffiti in the bathrooms of the North Campus Diner, and other incidents like that.”
“On our campus, someone was murdered last semester based on their race, and that’s a big problem,” he said. “It happened just feet from one of our residence halls. And this semester, students have expressed fear about living on campus and feeling unsafe because of it.”
Administrators, including President Wallace Loh, have acknowledge the aggressive nature of the hate messages students have found around campus. However, many feel that it is important to foster a community where all are encouraged the share their thoughts and continue to “exchange ideas and engage in debate,” according to Loh’s twitter.
As part of the university’s campaign against hate, officials considered a campuswide ban of hate symbols. Officials rejected the ban, telling The Diamondback it would violate First Amendment rights.
“Free speech is still a first amendment right of citizens, students, faculty and employees,” Diane Krejsa, this university’s deputy general counsel and chief of staff, told The Diamondback in the article “UMD officials say a campuswide ban of hate symbols would limit First Amendment rights.”
“This is not a home,” Krejsa continued, sparking the Twitter hashtag #UMDnotahome, started by frustrated students. Students used the hashtag as an opportunity to share their experience with bias-related incidents and the lack of response from university officials.
“Actions speak louder than words and I don’t feel like action is being taken,” Chauhan said. “There’s a lot more campus can do to make people feel safe and to limit these hateful actions. … I don’t know what [the administration] is doing, which I think is part of the problem. They need to tell students more about what they’re doing to help with diversity issues like this because I want to know and so do other students.”
The University of Maryland is not the only school to see an uptick in bias-related incidents this year. Universities like George Washington University in Washington, D.C. report “hate crimes reach highest increase in five years,” while “Rewire” shared the article “Campuses Wrestle With Wave of Hate-Based Incidents Since Election.”
“Racism is systemic and no university is truly exempt from that,” a Hofstra University student told Rewire. “It’s clear that this is happening because a lot of closeted bigots now see no reason to remain closeted.”
The shifting political climate in the United States touches more than just college campuses. Hate-bias related incidents surged in Maryland by 40 percent in 2017, and by 20 percent nationwide, according to police data compiled by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.
This university has assembled task forces and student groups, like the Joint President/Senate Inclusion and Respect Task Force, to address the increase of hate-bias incidents on campus, but many feel it’s too little, too late.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Matt Churchill’s Flickr account.
Julia Lerner is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.