The messages are chilling: “Buy blacks in bulk,” one comment said. “You only need to go as far as Mauritiana to get slaves,” said another. “Much cheaper.” And another: “Bomb the mosques.”
They read like comments sent between white supremacists from a dark corner of the internet. But they’re not. They’re messages sent in a WhatsApp group chat between a group of law students at the University of Exeter, which suspended a number of them Tuesday.
It’s a dilemma that has reached across the pond. As neo-Nazism and white nationalism have entered the mainstream, universities everywhere are grappling with what to do when their students are openly racist. Just over two years ago, Oklahoma University became infamous for expelling two fraternity brothers for singing a racist chant. And while the University of Exeter chose to suspend its students, in the United States, public universities face constitutional obstacles to punish students for hate speech. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that universities use these incidents as moments to teach, reflect, restate and recommit to their own values.
There is something deeply satisfying about universities that have chosen to expel students who are racist and hateful and whose rhetoric has had the potential to cause real harm to their peers. It is an institution saying that it will not tolerate white supremacy on its campus — which is critical for students to hear in an age in which neo-Nazism masquerades as legitimate scholarship. That decision tells students that their university is there to support them, to generate a positive and productive learning environment, and it is aware of the social context that it operates in.
But public universities that have expelled students for expressing racist views face real legal consequences. After a University of Alabama student was expelled for posting Instagram videos rife with racial slurs and epithets in January, UC Berkeley Law School dean and constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky told Inside Higher Ed that she would have a “strong case” for suing the university on First Amendment grounds. And the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined that the punishment given to a fraternity at George Mason University for holding a culturally insensitive “ugly women contest” violated freedom of expression under the First Amendment.
“But if the First Amendment allows the state to punish someone for ugly remarks that are profoundly offensive, as in this case, then it acquires the power to do the same for other speech that is offensive to those in power,” the court wrote.
So even when dealing with the most blatant, vile hate speech targeted toward students, it seems like public universities are hamstrung in condemning those students. Private schools, of course, are free to suspend or expel students for any reason — and, for racism and discrimination, they should exercise that power.
Regardless, these incidents still provide important learning opportunities. While universities have an obligation to foster open discourse, they also have the right and privilege to assert their values as institutions. When a university is struck with an incident of racism — like that experienced by former Undergraduate Student Government President Rini Sampath in 2015, which engendered a year of student engagement with diversity policy — it must react quickly, decisively and forcefully. It must show students that it is committed to creating an inclusive environment for students through initiatives that matter much more than some racist student’s wayward comment — through inclusive hiring policies for faculty and staff, commitments to affirmative action policies to lower barriers for students of color, financial support for cultural centers and resource centers for marginalized students, diverse coursework that challenges mainstream narratives, specific and focused initiatives to improve inclusion on campus, access to administrators for students with concerns regarding diversity and inclusion and a demonstration of risks taken in order to emphasize equity.
So public universities can’t kick out their racist students. Fine. But they can engage in activity that is much more meaningful in the long term: They can better their institutions. In becoming more inclusive, they can beget graduates who are thoughtful, compassionate and have the intellectual tools to combat the fever of white supremacy revealing itself on every platform. And maybe that’s more effective than removing racist students, anyway; maybe that’s the way that we see ourselves out of the ideological resurgence of hatred and bigotry.
Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.