Racist Theme Parties: Freedom of speech or freedom to hate?

Date Put forth on May 28, 2007 by XicanoPwr
Category Posted in Color-blind Society, democracy, Free Speech, Racism, Xenophobia


In the post-civil rights period, racial, ethnic and gender diversity has critical to our nation’s global competitiveness, national security and to our personal and community development. However, after decades of political and cultural conflict over the meaning of race and the persistence of structural racism in the US, new racial formations have developed. [tag]Racism[/tag] has now become harder to see than it was prior to the civil rights movement because it has become more subtle in policies and practices that have permeated in the political, economic, and socio-cultural structures of America in ways that generate differences in well-being between people of color and whites.

Previously, I wrote about the recent trend that is taking this country by storm. In colleges and universities across the country, white young adults are finding it fashionably acceptable to throw racist theme parties. A few weeks ago, it was reported that another off-campus racist party was thrown; this time, students from the [tag]University of Delaware[/tag] hosted the party.

The photos from the May 5 party featured students from the University of Delaware playing on Latino stereotypes during an off-campus “South of the Border” party. One photo showed students were dressed up as gardeners with nametags reading “Pedro” and “Jose” with a Latino racial slur on the back of the shirt that read “Spic n’ Span Gardening.” The students also wore gardening gloves and carried lawn tools as part of their racist costume. Others photos showed a trio of students in red, white and green shirts with the word “Mexico” on the front and on the back each labeling themselves either as “Hott,” “Spicy” or “Full of Tequila.”

This began when Lauren Boroski, a junior, elected to post pictures from the party on the popular social-networking site, Facebook, which was later discovered by a member from UD’s Campus Alliance de La Raza (CALR), a Latino organization on campus, which was later posted on the organization’s website. Soon after, the university announced that an investigation of the “South of the Border”-theme party was underway. According to the student paper, The Review, University President [tag]David Roselle[/tag] issued a statement on the university’s Web site, encouraging the campus community to join him in “decrying insensitive and thoughtless student behavior that can cause hurt to others.”

After the party, several attendees expressed their regret, claiming that they had no intent to be offensive. Boroski was the only one who publicly apologized for her actions during a town hall meeting to discuss the issues raised by the party and to begin the healing process. Some of the partygoers decided to write an apology instead. However, they ended up tripping over themselves because they all pleaded ignorance as the reason for their actions at the racist party.

Letter #1
I also did not understand what this world truly meant and it makes me extremely upset to think that anyone who does or does not know me believes that I am racist. … My use of malicious language or stereotypes does not reflect my personal views or beliefs and was a complete and utter serious misjudgment.

Letter #2
I am not a person who thinks badly of other people. … But the person you see in these photos is not representative of who I am, nor is it the type of person I want to be … Please know that the insulting sentiments portrayed in the pictures are so contrary to how I truly feel about the students on this campus and the minority population.

Letter #3
I am very sorry that these pictures have caused you pain, and that my attire has reflected a racist attitude in your eyes. I can assure you that I have always considered myself an individual who openly accepted others, and I had no intention of causing any damage with this attire.

It has been reported that the offending students were members of the local chapter of Phi Sigma Pi, a national co-ed honors fraternity. What is not widely known is that some of the photographed students were from Blue Hen Ambassadors, a campus organization where students officially represent the university by conducting campus tours and help recruit prospective students to the University. This probably explains why the university’s Office of Public Relations were quick to report that a forum was organized on campus by La Raza and Phi Sigma Pi in their on-line e-zine, UDAILY in which more than 200 students, staff and faculty members were in attended the forum. According to Delawareonline, in which more than 200 students, staff and faculty members attended the forum. According to Delawareonline, Boroski was the only one from Phi Sigma Pi who participated the town hall meeting. If the other participants who also attended to party failed to attend the town hall meeting, one does have to wonder if Phi Sigma Pi really co-hosted the forum with La Raza and really committed to what is stated on. Was this an effort by the university to downplay the concerns over the racially-theme “South of the Border” party?

It is interesting that there was an effort to make sure everybody knows that the party was not an “organization-sponsored event.” Several media reports made sure to emphasize Brian Brady’s, president of UD’s Phi Sigma Pi chapter, message. Although some steps have been taken in the right direction, such as Phi Sigma Pi deciding take “disciplinary action” against offending students by suspending them from the organization for one year and requiring them to attend diversity classes. The National Office is currently investigating the matter. Unfortunately, since the party near the end of the school, with the country’s short term memory problem, this event will most likely go down the memory hole this summer.

Sadly, the university has decided to sweep this issue under the rug by deciding not to punish the students, particularly in light of their of their “zero tolerance for hate”. “The University of Delaware must and will have a zero tolerance for hate,” Roselle stated in an open letter to the university. “There is no place at the University of Delaware for those whose credo is meanness and whose method is intimidation.”

What makes this upsetting, the university has decided to close its eyes on the reality and treat this as a “free speech” issue. Roselle told the UD community that the “actions of the students attending the party are not criminal,” therefore the university “will respect their First Amendment rights.” The question remains, why maintain a set of policies which address this issue and not follow them.

The University has a “zero tolerance” for hate crimes and bias-related conduct. When a student has been found to have violated the Code of Conduct and the Hearing Officer finds facts demonstrating that the offender has directed his or her behavior towards someone because of that person’s particular race, gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation or disability, the sanctions may be enhanced as the Hearing Officer deems appropriate.

There is no need to have these students expelled or suspended, however, there must be some form of disciplinary action with they are actually be made to learn from their actions. Although it true that we as a nation are allowed to express our views, but the reality is, we live in a world where people are looking for loopholes so they do not have to be held accountable for their actions. Angela Onwuachi from Blackprof provides some good insight into various ways how institutions may handle these issues.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, Justice O’Connor highlighted the various ways in which institutions may benefit from having racially diverse student bodies, such as through enhanced learning among students because of exposure to diverse perspectives; increased ability by students to work and live with people from different cultures, and the destruction of racial stereotypes about the intellectual capacity and viewpoints of both minority and majority members. Perhaps, these partying or joking students could be made to benefit directly from these lessons laid out in Grutter—to learn from diverse interaction, not just on their campuses, but outside of them.

It is true that some things are definitely inappropriate and shouldn’t be punished too harshly, but given the frequency of these events, when do we start drawing the line between what’s entertaining and what’s offensive? A forum is a good first step, but how effective is it when only one member shows up. The reality is, this is not just a University of Delaware problem, these events are emerging on university campuses through out the country, which should trouble us all the more. We can no longer just shrug them off as isolated incidents and pretend they innocently made a mistake.

If one where to do a search on Facebook on other “ghetto” type parties, you will see nothing has changed. Here is a short list from a quick Facebook search.

On June 23, in Columbia, MO group of young adult white males are gathering for a “Ghetto BBQ.”
On May 27, in Bloomington, IL a young white female had a “ghetto fabulous grad party” with the description, “It be hip hoppin yo.”
On May 25, in Denver, CO a young white male had a “Ghetto Trailer Trash” eviction party.
On May 19, in Lake Winnebago, MO a group of white young adults held a “ghetto garage party”
On May 15, in Virginia Beach, VA a group of young adult white females held a “Beach Babes and Ghetto Bitches” party
On April 15, in Whitewater, WI a group of young adult white males gathered for a “Thug Life Baby” party.
On March 31, in Pittsburgh, PA a group of white young adults held a “Thug’s and Hoe’s Party”

In the book Understanding Words that Wound, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic address the immediate danger of hate speech to Latinos and other historically dis-empowered groups. Hate speech does not just apply to overt charge words used by folks like the KKK; it also represents the manifestation of socially accepted stereotypes. One could argue that the message the university is sending out to the University of Delaware community is that ethnic slurs is acceptable because the First Amendment allows them to disregard a person’s humanity, dignity, self-respect, standing, and potential. It also sends a message that UD’s University Policies is just there to give lip service and really has no teeth because in the end if an individual or organization is ever caught, all will be forgiven if they apologize for their actions, plead ignorance of their surroundings and conduct a Dr. Phil type forum.

The actions of the university are just another painful reminder to extent of this country’s commitment to maintaining white supremacy. In order the defeat racism, we must realize all parties must be committed to ending racism. The first step we must answer this fundamental question: How can we really tackle racism when a majority from the white culture actually do believe racism does not exist in this country? Yet, how is it that a nation who is legally committed to equal opportunity for all – regardless of race, creed, national origin, or gender – continually reproduces patterns of racial inequality? How is it that in our open, participatory democracy, racial minorities are still underrepresented in positions of power and decision-making?

Their rejection of racism is no doubt genuine in its adoption of “colorblindness;” but it also tends to continue the existing inequalities and injustices that descend from the Jim Crow days of segregation. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has constructed a theory of “color-blind racism” based on ignorance or denial of racial disparities and underlying structural factors. He suggests that race-related issues are understood primarily by means of four dominant frames. The first frame involves the minimization or trivialization of racial differences. The claim that race does not exist, or is not real, is the ultimate form of this tactic. When disparities are acknowledged, the second frame involves blaming minorities for their pathological non-White cultures, rather than on structural constraints or White privilege. The third frame justifies racial phenomena as natural. Finally, the fourth frame upholds the current standards such as equality and meritocracy, but fails to take into account relevant preconditions such as a balanced playing field.

These positions reflect the dominant racial ideology in the US – a view that seems more concerned with “reverse discrimination” than with unchanged black and Latino poverty rates, infant mortality, or heightening, not declining, racial stratification. Thus domestic racial ideology both undermines an older, more familiar racial mindset and reinforces it.

These inconsistencies are indications of the uncertainties of the current moment in racial politics. Racism is a type of despotism. Whenever one does contemplate race and racism as being part of a national social structure, we are immediately struck by the magnitude to which racism still stratifies societies as a whole. However, if we continue to close our eyes to this reality, it becomes impossible to operate effectively as a society. Roselle had a chance to make a difference, he could have been creative in developing new forms of policies is handling racism. In pursuit of racial justice and racial democracy, he could have used one of the new theoretical insights developed from his own pool of professors. Nevertheless, he did not, he opted to take the coward way out and in the end; the racism beat goes on.

Thus we are compelled to ask, what would a racial justice-oriented set of policies or program look like in the twenty-first century? We should not dismiss this as a rhetorical question, but instead attempt to respond to it from a radical pragmatist viewpoint, one that takes its commitments seriously.

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  1. odd College Racism Roundup has been updated « Vox ex Machina Trackback on May 29th, 2007 at 2:45 am
  2. even appletree » Blog Archive » Wednesday Outrage: Bigotry Edition Trackback on May 30th, 2007 at 6:20 pm
  3. odd » Modern Day Jim Crow Injustice - By ¡Para Justicia y Libertad! Trackback on Aug 13th, 2007 at 12:11 pm
  4. even » America’s World of Racisms, Reversals and Resurgence - By ¡Para Justicia y Libertad! Trackback on Sep 29th, 2009 at 10:40 am

9 Comments

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  1. Gravatar Icon Mister Suss May 29th, 2007 at 10:56 am

    Fantastic post, thank you for articulating that. I’m a young white male college student at a school (Michigan) a lot like Delaware, and I can testify that “racist” parties like that are common and generally taken lightly. Part of the problem is that college campuses are still so segregated. My school supposedly reflects, more or less, the racial breakdown of the States as a whole (higher rate of people of Asian descent, fewer Latinos), but you’d never know it walking around campus. The minority groups are isolated and not very vocal as far as the main (white) forums for discussing campus issues are concerned. Sure, affirmative action is a big deal at Michigan, there’s even a relatively successful student government party that takes it as its sole issue. But parties like that go mostly unchallenged by the minority communities, and when white kids try to speak up, they’re laughed at or treated with disgust (“where’s your sense of humor you fucking killjoy? christ we were just having fun, it’s not like we’re in the fucking KKK or something”).

  2. Gravatar Icon Amanda May 29th, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    Ummm… yeah, that’s really weak on the part of the President, considering the university’s pre-existing policy regarding this type of behavior. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that they are more concerned with so-called “reverse discrimination”. And the apology letters are just ridiculous. “I did not understand what this world truly meant”… what does that mean? It’s completely incoherent. It’s ludicrous for college students to claim that they had no idea that depicting an ethnic group as stereotypes with a racial slur could be offensive… What they really meant to say is, they didn’t think WE (the other) would find out about it. I would only accept the letter of apology if it’s from one of the kids with the hott, spicy, full of tequila t-shirts. Because, while it’s not exactly culturally uplifting, it is within the now-mainstream Cinco de Mayo celebration theme, akin to St. Patrick’s Day.
    This reminds me of the incident at Duke a couple years back, where your ticket to the party was a “green card”. And it appears that Cornell has had so many racist theme parties that there was a protest on campus. The google search results are never-ending.

  3. Gravatar Icon el longhorn May 30th, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    Sorry, XP, but I gotta disagree with you on this one. This is a free speech issue, plain and simple. A state university CANNOT punish someone for exercising their right to free speech, no matter what kind of stupid shit comes out of their mouth. Remember, offensive speech is in the eye of the beholder. How many white people would classify xicanopwr.com as a hate speech website?

  4. Gravatar Icon Tom May 30th, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    This story keeps getting worse. For the university to specifically affirm the “free speech” rights of some students who were actively dehumanizing other students on the basis of race is at least an abdication of its educational mission, and likely an encouragement to future offenses as well.

  5. Gravatar Icon XicanoPwr May 31st, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    I have forgotten, I will get back to this later on this evening.

  6. Gravatar Icon XicanoPwr May 31st, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    el longhorn – you are correct, it is a free speech issue. And I think the 27 comments I have moderated would agree that this probably would be a hate speech blog.

    But I think Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best when he said, “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged. A word is instead the skin of a living thought that may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.”

    That being said, I think the “fighting words doctrine” can be useful. Where the Court wrote in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942

    “There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting words” those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”

    I maybe wrong in this assessment, but I think this can apply, it is a state institution.

  7. Gravatar Icon nezua limón xolagrafik-jonez Jun 1st, 2007 at 9:22 am

    It’s mainstream to think that the Brown are inferior. Of course they don’t see it as a big deal, as their americanlawgiven right to say shit that insults, derides, or dehumanizes us. They are the conquerors. They are the Superiors. We are but tequila-snookered gardeners and whorish maids. And to many of these white college students off to rule the new america, that’s what we will always be.

  8. Gravatar Icon el longhorn Jun 1st, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    Ha! Tough to get through the day when it is full of hate-filled commentary. The problem with the fighting words doctrine is your Oliver Wendell Holmes quote – words have context. Since the court adopted the fighting words doctrinem they have never actually used it…never rejected it, but also never actually said “this is a fighting word that is exempt from the first amendment and subject to punishment by the government.” To use the most classic fighting word example, nigger can be the ultimate provocation or an expression of friendship and cameraderie, depending on who uses it and in what context. I just don’t trust the court system to be able to adjudicate those fine distinctions.

    Basically, I will err on the side of free speech, even when I don’t like the speech.

  9. Gravatar Icon XicanoPwr Jun 5th, 2007 at 7:45 pm

    OK you win. You are right, it is better to err on the side of free speech, but I don’t have to like it.

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