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Racist text messages from one Occidental College student to another—including one declaring, “all Asian people need to die”—have created a firestorm at the private liberal arts college, with many upset at the administration’s handling of the issue.
The text messages, which also blamed Asian people broadly for the coronavirus pandemic, were sent in late 2020, according to the Los Angeles Times, and Occidental College first became aware of the controversy in fall 2021. However, the issue simmered under the surface until early February, when screenshots of the text messages spread on social media, prompting outrage.
The Response and the Fallout
As news of the hateful text messages circulated, college officials issued a statement.
“We denounce these statements as false and contrary to the values we share and that are embodied in Oxy’s mission,” David T. Carreon Bradley, vice president for equity and justice at the college, wrote in an email to the campus community on Feb. 3. “I know that these may be only words in an email, but I write them because, as we have seen, words have power.”
The student who sent the offensive messages was not disciplined, according to the Times, though Occidental College confirmed she is no longer enrolled. Students demanded action, prompting Occidental president Harry Elam to weigh in with an email explaining the college’s stance.
“Oxy is bound by California’s ‘Leonard Law,’ which says that private colleges cannot punish student speech that would be protected by the First Amendment,” Elam wrote in a Feb. 3 message. “Our Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation policy incorporates this protection by requiring Oxy to review allegations of harassment in light of student free speech rights. As difficult as it may be to reconcile, a private text conversation, which is not targeted at an individual and does not represent a credible threat, does not necessarily constitute unlawful harassment.”
Students have criticized the college’s response, including its removal of messages supporting the Asian community chalked on campus, which violated the college’s chalking policy. University administrators later conceded it was a mistake to remove the messages.
“Overall, our administration’s response to the anti-Asian hate messages was disappointing and saddening because of their dismissal of the community who was targeted,” Ashley Muranka-Toolsie, president of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Association at Occidental, wrote to Inside Higher Ed via LinkedIn. “The lack of cultural competency within their responses was another reason for anger and frustration—emotions that have been felt for a long time now on campus.”
Students also pushed back on administrators via an open letter sent by the Oxy Law Society.
“By informing the student body that these words did not constitute harassment, you failed in your roles as administrators to take harassment at any level, through any medium, seriously,” the letter from the law society stated in part. “In turn, a failure to acknowledge the impact that these words could have, and did have, on the [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community both inside and outside of Oxy, severely harms the Occidental community as a whole.”
The letter also refers to the college’s response as “hollow words” and calls for punitive actions.
The pushback prompted another email from Elam and an apology for the way the response “compounded the community harm.” Elam also announced a series of actions that the college will be taking in the aftermath of the racist text messages, which includes listening sessions; the creation of a committee to respond to discrimination, harassment and retaliation complaints; an antiracism workshop; antibias and cultural competency workshops; a discussion on the Leonard Law; the hiring of a justice, equity, inclusion and diversity education specialist; and an expansion of antiracist education as a requirement for new student orientation, beginning with the next incoming class.
With leadership under fire from students, some have offered a defense, on First Amendment grounds, for how the college handled the matter as a free speech issue.
First Amendment lawyer Ken White, a prolific Twitter user and parent of an Asian American student at Occidental, called the response “legally and philosophically appropriate.”
“Oxy’s response—condemn the speech (not naming the student), condemn racism, put it in current context, but explain that it’s protected and offer resources to deal with it—is the legally and academically appropriate response,” White wrote in a series of tweets on Feb. 3.
Beyond the university administration, the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority—to which the author of the offensive text messages belonged—is also dealing with the fallout and considering disbanding.
Rising Anti-Asian Hate
The racist text messages that created a stir at Occidental are part of a broader increase in anti-Asian rhetoric that has mushroomed as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. First identified in China, the coronavirus has triggered an outpouring of anti-Asian hate, ranging from xenophobic remarks by sitting members of Congress to physical violence on U.S. streets.
Hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. spiked by 342 percent in 2021, according to a new, unpublished study from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Los Angeles—where Occidental is located—saw a 175 percent increase in hate crimes against Asians, reaching a total of 41 incidents in 2021, the report found.
“Anti-Asian hate crimes are up 342% in our multi-city survey and we tend to find the most in major coastal/adjacent cities that are densely populated, with significantly higher proportional Asian population widespread use of public transportation and the presence of group-identified gathering places (e.g. ‘Koreatown’ or landmarks),” center director Brian Levin said via email.
Levin also noted that 2021 hate crime data in the report are preliminary and subject to change.
Rowena M. Tomaneng, vice president of Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education and president of San José City College, in an email condemned the “ongoing negative, xenophobic, and racial attacks on Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities across U.S. society.” Tomaneng noted such events, coupled with the challenges of the pandemic, inflict trauma on students.
“AAPI students in higher education institutions are no strangers to anti-Asian sentiment, discrimination and racism. AAPI students are experiencing mental health issues brought on by racial trauma coupled [with] the disruptions that have taken place due to the pandemic,” Tomaneng said. “Negative campus climates such as what is present at Occidental College demonstrates the work that needs to be done across higher education, which includes anti-racism workshops and decolonizing the curriculum so it is more inclusive of the diverse experiences of our students.”