April 26, 2018

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: A Warning in the Wake of Greenwood

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To the Editor:

In what can only be laughably called a punishment, John Greenwood ’20 took a plea deal and was ordered to do 75 hours of community service — less time than the membership requirements of most Cornell service organizations — for an assault and racial slurs that, if committed by a black student against a white one, would have inevitably resulted in jail time, and no such plea deal.

It is striking to come to the realization that we are living in a world where this can be considered an adequate reprimand for such community-wrenching actions. Greenwood barely received a slap on the wrist for something that has toppled our community’s sense of safety: a distorted response, when compared to our community’s reckoning in the wake of this incident.

The truth is that distortion is, and has been, the reality. This case, like so many before it, became a war of attrition rather than a true criminal proceeding. Greenwood studied abroad in Italy while a top-tier lawyer, famous for representing mob bosses and crooked cops, took care of business in Ithaca. Meanwhile, the victim, every day afterward, had to walk the same place in which he was attacked, while working with a District Attorney who, by the looks of it, had no interest in further prosecuting his case. The circumstances are so repugnant that they would be worth a laugh if the verdict was not so disgustingly real.

The response of the legal system has yet again proven to be woefully inadequate. At times, the legal outcomes fail to represent our community’s conception of morality. Most members of the Cornell community agree that someone who commits racial violence at Cornell deserves more than minimal punishment. When the law fails to correct detrimental behavior, it’s up to us — students and the Cornell administration — to revitalize the inclusive idea upon which Cornell was founded: that of “any person, any study.”

Contrary to that founding ideal, this campus does not have a reputation of actively protecting students who feel unsafe: the founding of Africana Studies and Ujamaa Residential College only happened after Black students took over Willard Straight Hall; the Latino Living Center did not exist until Latinx students took over Day Hall. In fact, Greenwood’s assault is the latest in a series of events dating back to Cornell’s founding that proves we have only lived under the guise of this motto.

This campus cannot and should not be a place where prejudices like Greenwood’s can flourish. Both Greenwood and those who share his prejudices do not deserve to bear the Cornell name on their resumes, nor do other Cornell students deserve to be associated with them. His continued participation in our community harms all involved, except for him. Expelling Greenwood would be a step in the right direction, but if the Cornell administration will not work against the legal outcome, we as a community need to change our practices.

Changing punitive systems, though, is simply the tip of the iceberg. There are myriad courses of action the administration can take, such as allocating permanent spaces for multicultural organizations, fostering minority representation in all shared governance bodies, hiring more professors, physicians, staff members, psychologists, and psychiatrists of color, and creating a centralized organization dedicated to the study and eventual dismantlement of racism on Cornell’s campus would all have measurable impact on our campus’ culture. The task of implementing these changes rests with both students and administration; if one part of an engine malfunctions, the entire engine fails.

Cornell has, for far too long, been ignoring the social ills that have plagued it since its founding. If we boast “any person, any study,” if it is written on our archways, in our halls, and on our notebooks, then this discrimination must not be happening — then Greenwood’s incident must be an isolated event. We have lulled ourselves to sleep, blanketed by the security of this perilous falsehood, and we will sleep soundly with the assurance that such an incident will never happen again. Until it does.

Rachel Whalen ’19, former Sun news editor
Jacob Kuhn ’18
Katie Kilbourne ’18
Winnie Ho ’19
Kathleen Li ’19
Sabrina Movitz ’19
Uchral Tergel ’19
Delmar Fears ’19
Zoe Maisel ’18
Samantha McIlwrick ’18