January 26, 2007

Hate Crime Leaves Questions

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This article is the first in a series examining issues of race and diversity at Cornell. The goal is to investigate where we are now and where we are going, to seek out the role race plays at Cornell, as it is lived every day by members of the Cornell community.

Charles Holiday — son, student, stabbing victim — was addressing the court. Halting, quiet, strained at first, his voice grew stronger as he continued.
“Vengeance,” Holiday said, “I leave that up to my god.”

“I’m not here to give any solution to problems of racism,” he said. But he did want to make one thing clear. “The hands that helped me that night were white,” he said. “Race is a very, very silly thing to base one’s actions upon.”

“Mr. Poffenbarger, I would just like to say that I would never, would never wish the suffering on you that I experienced,” Holiday said.

“I simply wish that as a man you hold yourself accountable for the actions that you chose that night.”

Nathan Poffenbarger ’08 — son, student, convicted felon — was sentenced to 16 months to four years in state prison on hate crime charges. Choking back tears, he mouthed a goodbye to his parents at the back of the courtroom. Discreetly, the sheriff’s deputies slipped on handcuffs. He was gone.

Afterwards, in the courthouse lobby, Holiday said he pitied his attacker. “I’m not pleased by the fact that he has to go to jail,” he said. “He has a family, and he’s a person, and I just wish that he uses this opportunity to grow.”

Holiday is tall, broad shouldered. His handshake was firm, but his palms were damp with sweat. It was his mother who had cried in the hospital. His senior year postponed. His blood on the pavement.

“I don’t have a solution for racism,” he repeated. “Racism is an ongoing thing. It’s a legacy in this country.” But, he said, he hoped people would learn in the aftermath of that night last February. “It’s always good to be progressive. As college students, in an intellectual community, there are better ways of solving problems than destruction.”

Last February, Poffenbarger’s racially motivated stabbing of Holiday, a visiting Union College student, caused an uproar on campus and prompted student activists to accuse Cornell of “institutional racism.”

Poffenbarger, who is white, stabbed Holiday, who is black, after shouting racial epithets. After being kicked out of a party at Sigma Pi fraternity for fighting and shouting racial slurs, Poffenbarger continued to yell while walking away from the house. Holiday and two friends confronted Poffenbarger on the sidewalk outside Baker Tower where, in the first hours of a Saturday morning, the stabbing occurred. Then, Poffenbarger cleaned his knife, cut the bloodstains out of his clothes, dismantled the weapon and burned the rags in his wastebasket.

The University sent out an e-mail. They held public meetings. Sunday night, Poffenbarger turned himself in to the police. In the following weeks, student activists demonstrated, accusing the university of racism and demanding action.

“Very quickly, it seemed, it became an issue of considerable concern to the community, especially the minority community on campus,” said dean of students Kent Hubbell ’67.

“This document,” he said, taking a sheaf of papers from a printer in his office in The Straight, “is the outcome of that situation. The [Poffenbarger] incident prompted the University to revisit what it was doing around its commitment to diversity.”

Near the end of last semester, the Skorton administration announced the formation of a University Diversity Council. The group will hold public meetings and formulate policy on diversity. The president and provost co-chair an executive committee, and a working group is co-chaired by Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development, and David Harris (no relation), vice provost for social sciences.

Last October, the group published a report detailing Cornell’s current diversity-related activities and setting goals for the future: more diverse cohorts of students, faculty and staff, and a friendlier climate on campus.

“The challenge, it seems to me personally, is how we achieve an environment where all students feel at home.” Hubbell said of the effort. “We’re a large, complicated university … we have to be perennially vigilant for things that go against that larger feeling of community. It doesn’t take too many uncharitable remarks to create a feeling of alienation … a hostile environment.”

Hubbell said that Cornell’s character as a “big, centrifugal university,” means that students are often drawn to those most like themselves. But he also said that the large, diverse campus affords particular opportunities to achieve understanding between groups. Indian students have class with Pakistanis. Muslim and Jewish students share Arabic language classrooms.

“The larger world,” Hubbell said, “is somehow mirrored in our lives here.”
“Usually, when you have an open demonstration, things have built up over time,” Robert Harris said.

He said he does not subscribe to demonstrators’ claims that Cornell is a racist institution, but that their dissatisfaction still needs to be addressed.

“We’re looking to promote conversation; we’re looking to air concerns so these are not things that fester, so to speak. … There’s always going to be [racial] tension.” The question, Harris said, is how to avoid the boiling over of that tension.

David Harris was trained as a sociologist, and most of his research centers around issues of race, ethnicity and how those issues affect young people.

“Some people would argue that it’s risky to be talking about this before we have definite solutions. I couldn’t disagree more,” Harris said of his desire to move forward with the working group.

“It has to be something that’s established throughout the culture. It can’t just be that when there’s a stabbing we hold public meetings for a few months…There’s this big disconnect often between ideals and actions. We’re often so afraid to do the wrong thing that we do nothing. Really having success means you’re going to have failure once in a while. We don’t believe we can solve everything, but we believe we can do better,” he said.

Harris talked about looking at ways to foster discussion. He said he wants to help students to talk to each other, and to talk to talk to the University. Harris wants to get students from different backgrounds talking to each other, and to get all students talking to the University, to foster what he called “an ongoing sense of awareness.”

“Part of what I heard from students was, ‘I have ideas, but how would I possibly penetrate the administration?’” he said. “We need to think of ways to bring folks together when there’s not a crisis … the goal is not to indoctrinate one another but to try to understand.”

“Students don’t realize this … but for most students, the four years of college will be four years in which you’re in a more diverse environment than you’ve ever been and than you’ll ever be. Wouldn’t it be great,” Harris said, “if you meet someone and you talk to them about their situation and you tell them about yours?”

“One of the things that was to me so sad when the stabbing occurred was when I heard white students saying, ‘why are members of the minority community so upset?’”

There was a sense among white students, Harris said, that the stabbing was an isolated incident, and that minority students’ concerns about wider problems were unfounded.

“Folks are living in extremely close proximity to one another and not knowing what each other are going through,” he said. “If students perceive they’re victims of bias, that perception is in itself a problem.”

“It’s important not to be scared to talk about racism,” said Justin Davis ’07, president of Black Students United. Davis sat in the gallery at Poffenbarger’s sentencing.

“We tend to shroud diversity. We need to stop covering up diversity with things that don’t talk about race,” Davis said.

Ben Woods grad also attended the sentencing. “Cornell,” he said, “is in America, and you can’t really take it out.”