September 16, 2017

EDITORIAL: A Reckoning After Hate in Collegetown

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The events reported earlier tonight by The Sun are incredibly disturbing and merit immediate and comprehensive action by the University and the Interfraternity Council. Early Friday morning, a black Cornell student told The Sun he was verbally and then physically assaulted outside of his residence after attempting to break up a fight around 1 a.m. The student, who was struck repeatedly in the face, was hospitalized. A video taken later that night, reportedly an hour after the assault, depicts several people, identified as members of an unaffiliated fraternity by Vice President for Student Life Ryan Lombardi and alleged to be members of Psi Upsilon in a Facebook post by Black Students United, shouting racial slurs and other insults at another student who is offscreen. It is difficult to watch, but we recommend to do so for anyone uncertain whether or not racism is alive and well at Cornell.

Regardless of their alleged membership in any organization, the individuals involved must be held fully accountable by the University and by the city of Ithaca. What is alleged is a criminal act and potentially a federal hate crime. Anything less than the full force of the judicial system will be inadequate to address what happened. There must be consequences, legal and otherwise, for racism and for assault.

And if the individuals shown in the video are indeed members of Psi Upsilon, Cornell and IFC have a responsibility to act accordingly and prevent the fraternity from regaining the recognition it lost after violating the rules of an interim suspension. That suspension, initially for three years and later reduced to 18 months, was put in place after chapter president Wolfgang Ballinger ’17 was charged with “first-degree attempted rape, first-degree criminal sexual act and first-degree sexual abuse” (Ballinger later pleaded guilty to forcible touching, a lesser charge). Lombardi did state that, pending investigation, “the ability of the fraternity to return to campus will no longer be considered.” IFC must support this decision and the sentiment behind it. They must also take measures to prevent Psi Upsilon from recruiting underground pledge classes. This fraternity, which before its suspension had reportedly amassed 31 judicial complaints, has repeatedly shown itself to be unworthy of a home at Cornell.

Thursday night’s events, coupled with last week’s incident in which a member of Zeta Psi fraternity chanted “Let’s build a wall around the [Latino Living Center],” underscore the need for a widespread reckoning of racism within the Cornell community, and in particular the Greek community on our campus. A joint statement from the IFC, the Panhellenic Council and the Multicultural Greek Letter Council said “We do not need these incidents to recognize that there is a problem in our community, on our campus and in this world” — but even that statement failed to acknowledge the consistently racial nature of the two occurrences. While we do not doubt Presidents Gleason, Barrett and Lord’s stance against “acts of hatred, intolerance and violence,” they must do more than just release statements after each successive incident. They must acknowledge that endemic to the Greek system is a permission structure allowing for racism and classism, the result of which we have seen over the past two weeks.

Meaningful change can only come about via concerted, coordinated and consistent action, not incremental reactionary measures applied through a disciplinary proceeding. The fetishization of tradition, central to much of fraternity culture today, understandably prevents such organizations from effecting meaningful change. Again, while this is not reflected in all fraternities across America or at Cornell, it is a feature inherent to the institution of the fraternity.

Racism is not unique to the Greek community. Implicit bias is not unique to the Greek community. It is all of us, not just fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, who must reckon with it. At a time when our nation’s leadership shows a remarkable reluctance to address racism and its continuing impact on the lives of tens of millions of people, it is up to all of us to speak up and to take action. This includes calling out racism when we see it, working to understand our own implicit prejudices and actively rectifying them.

What happened last Thursday night was despicable. No student at this university should ever have to fear for their personal safety, especially at the hands of another student. Nobody should walk the streets of Collegetown anxious that they will be recklessly harassed and assaulted because of the color of their skin. It is incumbent on Cornell and on the City of Ithaca to reassure people of color that they are not targets, but are students and Ithacans and faculty and employees and guests who deserve the full protection of the law.

This starts with accountability. IPD must answer to why they have yet to identify the name of the student charged with assault, or released his mugshot. The alleged perpetrator most likely made bail Thursday night and is free to roam our campus and Ithaca under perfect anonymity. Imagine the fear of not knowing if the man sitting next to you on the bus, or walking behind you at 3 a.m. on College Ave. just put a black man, who had the temerity to break up a fight on his own front lawn, in the hospital with a possible concussion; imagine not knowing because the police refused to identify such a man.

Furthermore, we should ask why neither the University nor IFC has identified the unaffiliated fraternity at the heart of all this.  If they are embarrassed that an organization that was theoretically banned from Cornell is apparently still thriving off-campus, or that it will expose their limited scope of power and restraint when it comes to fraternities whose alumni have a long and documented history of donations to Cornell, then let them be embarrassed. Perhaps now we will finally find out why Psi Upsilon’s initial suspension was reduced by a year and a half with little fanfare or explanation.

At this point, we have far too many questions, and far too few answers. We look forward to the results of the investigation, and we hope, for all our sakes, that it is conducted in a method becoming of a situation of this gravity. We also eagerly await the forthcoming plan to combat “hatred, intolerance and violence,” referenced in the Greek Tri-Council statement. Cornell cannot claim to be an institution for “any person, any study,” when episodes like this are swept under the rug or sloppily bandaged with half-baked measures designed for damage control rather than real change. This is not a question of rankings or of bad press and it is certainly not of future and potential contributions to the University’s coffers.

It is an issue of humanity. What kind of university, what kind of community, do we want to be?  That’s a question we should all be asking ourselves in the days to come.