Column, 711 words

Racism Just Isn’t Funny

The Compton Cookout was so egregious that the situation demanded a dramatic response.

Donald Kaul

A few weeks ago some frat boys at the University of California, San Diego, pulled what they thought of as a prank–just a fun thing.

In mock honor of Black History Month they held an off-campus “Compton Cookout,” named after the largely black suburb of Los Angeles a few dozen miles up the road.

The organizers invited guests to wear “grills,” those fake gold teeth favored by gangsta rappers and thuggish athletes, as well as the baggy athletic clothes worn by those groups.

And, oh yes, watermelon was served.

Well, you can imagine how funny the black students at the school found all of that. There’s nothing a rising African-American college student enjoys more than being branded with a demeaning racial stereotype.

But that wasn’t all. After black student groups had protested the cookout, a campus television program (described as satirical) broadcast a feature on the party, complete with a vile racial epithet ridiculing the protesting students.

In the midst of this, the administration opened up a website announcing a number of policy changes designed to mollify the protesters.

It didn’t work. There were more meetings, more protests. Then someone hung a noose from a bookcase in the main library.

That tore it for the black students and their allies. A multicultural mob of chanting, drum-beating students marched on the chancellor’s office and demanded action.

The chancellor at long last was forced to confront the students. Standing in front of her office, using a bullhorn to address the crowd, she said: “We will not tolerate hate on our campus.”

After which the students charged the building and occupied her office. A “suddenly it’s 1950” campus had been dragged kicking and screaming into the 1960s.

Eventually things settled down and the issue became one of dueling Facebook pages. One, Solidarity against Racism and Compton Cookout, claimed over 1,100 members; the other, UCSD Students Outraged that People Are Outraged about the Compton Cookout, about 550. The latter group says it deplores the “political correctness” of the anti-Cookout group.

I have two thoughts:

First, being a kind of 1950s person myself, I don’t generally favor students taking over campus buildings. I didn’t like it in the 1960s anti-war protests. I don’t like it now.

But in this case I’ll make an exception. An event like the Compton Cookout in the second decade of the 21st century is so egregious, and the university’s initial response so muted, that the situation demanded a dramatic response–a “we’re mad as Hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” sort of response. Under the circumstances, taking over the chancellor’s office was appropriate.

The second thought is the next time someone calls me “politically correct” for taking offense at a crude, mean-spirited, hurtful word or gesture, I shall place one of my Ukrainian grandmother’s leprosy curses on them and their progeny.

Shouting “PC” has become the right’s all-purpose defense, putting conservatism in danger of becoming the spiritual home of galloping yahooism. Not Yahoo! as in the Internet search engine, but yahoo as it appears in Gulliver’s Travels, meaning a base, savage creature of brutish sensibility.

You hear examples all the time on right-wing radio: crude racist, sexist, or homophobic remarks delivered by Don Imus, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of those clackers. And when you object to the garbage they accuse you of political correctness.

Preferring civil discourse to ignorant vituperation isn’t politically correct, it’s simply correct.

And don’t imagine that the Compton Cookout should have been of concern only to blacks. The event could as easily have targeted Jews, gays, Latinos, Asian-Americans, or women. Left unchecked, the forces that inspired that debacle will find other victims. That’s a given.

You can’t isolate group hatred or ethnic prejudice. They’re like cancers that attack first one organ, then quickly metastasize to others until the entire body is shot through with the disease.

And if that’s being politically correct, count me in.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.