American University has been seized by racial unease since a half-dozen pairs of bananas, their skins scrawled with toxic messages, were found hanging from black string nooses just after dawn early last week.
The incident coincided with the ascension of the university’s first African-American female student government president, Taylor Dumpson, a junior, who was subsequently placed under protection by campus police after a white supremacist urged others to troll her online.
If the bananas stunt’s perpetrator had hoped to ignite a spasm of fear and fury on the university’s leafy Washington, D.C., campus, they succeeded.
But beyond that it’s difficult to know what they hoped to achieve.
A small student demonstration was defused by administrators who immediately acceded to the protesters’ demands and said they would go even further to foster racial sensitivity and responsiveness on campus, and the FBI quickly joined the investigation into an episode deemed a hate crime.
In a rising national tide of racial intolerance, colleges have not been spared puerile, pathetic and threatening incidents, which play on the volatile campus sensitivities of an era defined by trigger warnings and safe spaces.
At AU, African-American and other students demanded a “sanctuary space” be established for minority students at a campus cafeteria; a policy granting extensions for final exams to minority students; and an open-door policy for outside groups such as the NAACP to investigate hate crimes and racial incidents at the university.
Eager to ease tensions, administrators granted those demands, and have gone the extra mile, or miles, by agreeing to additional nighttime patrols and racial-sensitivity training for students; offering a $1,000 reward for information that helps to identify the banana vandal, whose blurry image appears on security camera videos; and contracting with a prominent historian of American race relations, Ibram Kendi, to set up an anti-racism center on campus.
That’s a smart, proactive agenda, one that might serve as a blueprint for other universities facing similar problems.
Two days after the banana nooses appeared at AU, campus police at the University of Maryland at College Park said they were investigating a noose found hanging in the school’s Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house.
Two-bit provocations such as hanging nooses on campuses play on emotions made raw in the wake of a presidential campaign that featured the vilification of minorities and barely veiled race-baiting.
For university administrators, the challenge is to address that legitimate pain with sensitivity and make crystal clear that racist signs, symbols and speech are off-limits.
For students, whose outrage is legitimate, it’s worth considering that the more campus life is disrupted by such provocations, the more the provocateurs win.
Don’t let them.