Chad Washington, the Columbia student who was accused of an assault and alleged hate crime against a male Asian-American student last year, recently had his case dismissed by the New York City Criminal Court. Despite what some might think, this is good news.
This incident is, after all, about more than whether or not Chad Washington should be punished. It has more to do with race relations on this campus. At the risk of sounding inflammatory, I will say that Columbia—maybe we could say the Ivy League as a whole—appears to have a race problem. To find examples of this, we need only to look at a few statistics, and dig a little into Columbia history.
During the infamous protests of 1968, when Columbia students occupied Hamilton Hall and Low Library, part of what made the situation so tense was that black students at Columbia had very different demands from white students. As both black and white students occupied Hamilton Hall, their agendas began to diverge—black students wanted to focus more on fighting the construction of a gym in Morningside Park, while white students wanted to stop aiding the defense technology, which escalated tension between white and black students. Shortly thereafter, the white students moved their occupation to Low Library.
Today, it looks like students of color continue to feel alienated from the white-dominant culture on campus. Gerardo Romo’s piece (“Legacies of trauma,” Oct. 21) earlier last year addressed this point by arguing that students of color and queer students seemed to have more severe mental health issues on campus. Overly dismissive op-ed responses published in Spectator from students who did not share Romo’s identity or view seemed to further the point that race relations on campus were not as good as they may seem.
College graduation statistics also point to the continued alienation of students of color via alienation’s effects on graduation rates. A recent article published in The Dartmouth shows that only 85 percent of black students graduated in the class of 2011, compared to almost 97 percent of white students. Statistics for Native American students were even lower.
Columbia’s graduation statistics by demographic aren’t available online, but the same article does suggest that Columbia and other Ivy League institutions have similar distributions in their graduation rates.
So, within the context of racial marginalization and alienation on Columbia’s campus, what did it mean for a young man like Washington—who, statistically and historically, is part of one of the most vulnerable populations on this campus and in the United States as a whole—to allegedly perform this kind of violence onto another student who may also feel excluded and alienated based on his ethnicity?
The alleged assault was a product of a history of race relations between black and Asian students and people at Columbia and beyond.
The Model Minority myth used to homogenize and praise Asian Americans hinges on a particular form of anti-blackness. In other words, the logic of the Model Minority myth goes, if Asians can come to this country with nothing and be successful (to an extent, of course—the glass ceiling still exists), why can’t black people do it? Why can’t Latinos pull themselves up by their bootstraps? The Model Minority myth draws strict boundaries on who are “good” or desirable people of color (Asian Americans), with the result that by contrast, blacks in particular (but arguably also Latinos and Native Americans) are seen as “bad” or undesirable people of color.
The struggles of Asian Americans who continue to be marginalized are covered up by this myth, just as the historical and structural oppressions black Americans continue to face are covered up.
So when an incident like Washington’s alleged assault happens at Columbia, it probably has something to do with the broader race relations on this campus and the simmering racial tension in the United States. It probably has to do with continuous historical and structural oppression on Asian and black communities. It’s likely that it has something to do with the way in which many white and heterosexual students dismissed Romo’s observations about the different experiences of people of color and queer students on this campus.
In other words, this incident has little to do with the personal bigotry of Washington and more with the way in which racism works today.
It’s not that I think that Washington should not be held accountable for his actions. He should be. However, punishing Washington doesn’t address the system of racism that still exists. The answer to how we can focus on dismantling our racist practices and society is complicated, and I’m not going to pretend to provide a solution for this problem. I can, maybe, suggest strategies. And one strategy to dismantle the race problem at Columbia might be to look at the everyday ways in which students of color face structural oppression on this campus and at our everyday practices that perpetuate racism.
As long as we focus solely on the individual racist as the root of the problem instead of the racist society, hate crimes will continue to occur.
David Abud-Sturbaum is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. Much Abud About Nothing runs alternate Mondays.
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