The College Fix reported on Monday that Oberlin College, once named the 3rd “most liberal college in America,” was shocked by an alleged sighting of a “KKK figure,” wearing a robe and hood on campus.
Although there were no cell phone pictures or videos to corroborate the story, the “KKK figure” was reportedly spotted by someone in the early morning hours near the college’s African Heritage House.
Oberlin officials immediately cancelled all classes after hearing news of the alleged sighting. Instead of regularly scheduled classes, they hosted a series of discussion groups and community solidarity events, in order to help students cope with the disturbing reports.
“We hope today will allow the entire community—students, faculty, and staff—to make a strong statement about the values that we cherish here at Oberlin: inclusion, respect for others, and a strong and abiding faith in the worth of every individual. Indeed, the strength of Oberlin comes from our belief that diversity and openness enriches us all, and enhances the educational mission at its core,” college leaders said in an official statement.
Today the New York Times reports that after two days of investigation, Oberlin, Ohio police have been unable to confirm the alleged sighting.
Shortly after midnight on Monday, a female student reported seeing someone dressed in what looked like Ku Klux Klan regalia walking alone on campus near the Afrikan Heritage House. Campus security officers and the Oberlin Police Department responded, but could not find the person.
Another student later told the police that at about the same time, he spotted a person wrapped in a blanket, raising the possibility that the woman had been mistaken. Lt. Mike McCloskey of the Oberlin police said it was unclear whether the two sightings were of the same person.
Is it possible that someone walking around with a blanket around his or her shoulders, hoping only to ward off the cold, could have inadvertently caused the complete shut down of a college? Actually that seems highly likely in this case.
We at The Fix aren’t surprised by this turn of events. While this case seems to have begun with an innocent mistake, it was amplified by the overreaction of campus officials, who responded with total panic to an unsubstantiated and, frankly, implausible report.
Are we supposed to believe that there is an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Oberlin, Ohio in 2013? Or that a student there thought this was a good joke? Not likely.
These days, I think of the boy who cried wolf every time I hear a story like this. Many of us have learned to be skeptical of reports of “hate crimes” on college campuses, especially when they involve acts of alleged racism. We’ve seen such cases turn out to be hoaxes far too often, usually carried out by some misguided student or professor hoping to generate just the kind of response we saw at Oberlin this week.
More to the point, though: This case shows just how jittery modern college administrators can often be on the issue of racism. After all, what if it had been a real life KKK wizard haunting the streets of Oberlin in the wee hours of the night? Would the actions of one person really signal a community crisis at the college?
Nevermind that the sighting Monday was unsubstantiated. Would it really be worth shutting down an entire college even if the sighting had been proved genuine? Racism does exist in this world. Sometimes it is expressed in disturbing and ugly ways. It’s true, students can be genuinely frightened, even by something that turns out later to have been a hoax.
But does halting our normal activities and academic pursuits end up lending more attention and importance to the views or actions of one person than is merited? By making a big deal out of a racist act, do we give the perpetrator exactly what he wants?
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic wrote of alleged sighting at Oberlin:
Whether the perpetrator is a racist, or a cruel provocateur, or someone carrying out an ill-conceived hoax, this gives them what they sought: on a college campus, where everyone is gathered to advance their education, someone succeeded in disrupting the community’s core function. Like an arsonist who lights a match and watches the show, they’re likely enjoying the spectacle.
We’re not talking about an act of violence in the Oberlin case, just an act of someone reportedly dressing in a way that’s deeply offensive. In the future, perhaps a more measured and cautious response would be wise in such cases.
I doubt very much that there was any “KKK figure” walking the streets of Oberlin. But even if there were, perhaps the best strategy Oberlin College officials could have employed against him would be to–quite simply–ignore him.
Nathan Harden is editor of The College Fix and author of the book, SEX & GOD AT YALE: porn, political correctness, and a good education gone bad (St Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 2012).
Follow Nathan on Twitter @NathanHarden
(Image by Daderot / Wikimedia Commons)