Oberlin College in Ohio recently agreed to pay over $36 million to a small bakery after the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a multi-million-dollar jury verdict against the college. The lawsuit concerned actions by Oberlin students and administrators following an incident in the town of Oberlin in November 2016. Three African-American Oberlin students were arrested for theft in an altercation outside the local Gibson Bakery. Even though the students plead guilty, college leadership joined a group of students in falsely accusing the bakery’s owners of racial profiling, an accusation never made by those arrested. The college stopped doing business with the bakery and joined a call for a boycott. Students demonstrated in front of the store, slandering the owners as racist and handing out defamatory leaflets. The owners sued and a jury awarded the tens of millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.
It would be a tragedy if this disgraceful incident in any way obscured the unique place this small college has had in American history. Established in 1835, Oberlin has been associated with major achievements in the pursuit of racial justice and equality. A few years after its founding, it became the first college to admit African Americans and the first to become a co-ed higher educational institution. The town of Oberlin became a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping thousands of runaway enslaved people from the South find freedom, with some graduates of the college traveling through the South aiding slaves to escape. In 1858, town residents, as well as Oberlin’s students and faculty, joined in a heroic and forceful rescue of a runaway slave, known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. The historical contribution of Oberlin to the higher education of African Americans is remarkable, with its students comprising 50% of all African-Americans graduating from college in the 19th century.
Unlike those who risked their lives and freedom to rescue runaway slaves, Oberlin’s demonstrators coveted attention without risk or sacrifice. They called for a boycott of a local business without cause, with the knowledge that their school administration would blindly follow their lead and have their back. Some virtue-posturing administrators and faculty followed the students over the cliff, damaging Oberlin’s reputation and resulting in a costly civil judgment.
So how was it that in 2016 students and certain administrators came to tarnish Oberlin’s glorious history of fighting for racial justice? Oberlin’s reflexive unsubstantiated response to the incident is rooted in a pervasive false narrative that sees racism in the U.S. today as the chief impediment to African-American advancement and the cause of “unjust racial disparities.” While racist attitudes and prejudices will always be with us, this belief reveals an unwillingness to recognize what are some of the actual causes of these disparities. Why 84% of our nation’s Black fourth-graders can’t read at grade level compared to 59% of White fourth-graders. Why African Americans constitute 14% of the nation’s population but comprise 38% of the nation’s prison population. We must confront what is actually responsible for these unacceptable disparities if progress is to be made reducing them.
What students of Oberlin and other colleges can do today is help confront one of the primary causes of educational failure, school drop-outs and youth criminality. They can join in a massive nationwide outreach to help mentor and tutor inner-city youth, primarily boys, to fill the gap of fatherless oversight. They can work to preserve the freedom of those inner city children who may, through circumstance and neglect, be destined for prison. This takes true sacrifice. One involving commitment and tenacity. One, while short on drama, that can actually reduce racial disparities.
South Pasadenan Joseph Charney is a former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney.
Credit: Source link