Illustration by Jim Cooke

What Happens After a Racist Threat On Campus

Illustration by Jim Cooke

On November 11, the Friday after Election Day, a group of black freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania received a set of disturbing notifications. Students were already drained from an exceptionally grim week that saw millions of Americans elect Donald Trump as the next president. An event that felt like blunt-force trauma to much of the country was still fresh that morning, when Penn students learned that they’d been added to several chats within the texting app GroupMe. In the chat rooms, anonymous individuals with usernames like “Daddy Trump” posted a series of racist messages, including “Heil Trump” and a calendar event that threatened a “daily lynching.”

Throughout the afternoon, Penn students shared screenshots of the GroupMe messages on Facebook, and news of the incident spread across campus by text. More than 161 people were reportedly part of the GroupMe, including the creators, though the exact number was hard to track. Calvary Rogers, a sophomore, says he found out about it after seeing a freshman friend—one of the GroupMe victims—“scared and shaking” in a classroom. Rogers joined the GroupMe so he could have evidence to report it to the Vice Provost office.

Across the country, a version of what Penn had experienced was playing out on various sinister levels, inspired in part by the racist rhetoric of our future president who, during his campaign, proposed a ban on Muslims in America, stereotyped Mexicans as rapists, and seemed to think all black Americans live in inner city slums. “The reality of a Trump America was hard in itself,” Rogers tells me over the phone. “For that incident to happen two days later, it was just like, wow, we haven’t even had a week and we’re already getting legit death threats. At that point, I realized the scale of this thing, and it really hit me how comfortable racist people had gotten.”

At 4 p.m., the student-run collective of black organizations on campus known as UMOJA (Swahili for “unity”) held an emergency town hall in the basement of Rodin College House. A mic was set up in the room, and students were encouraged to speak openly about the incident. This was their declared safe space. In the room, students expressed a mixture of fear, disgust, and confusion about being targets of cyber racism. “I don’t think anybody had a productive Friday,” says Araba Ankuma, a senior and creative fellow at Penn’s black student resource center Makuu who attended the town hall. “That’s how badly it affected the student psyche.”

Roughly two hours later, the meeting moved to a café in Huntsman Hall, where Penn president Amy Gutmann showed up to support the black students and allies in attendance. A mic was set up there, too, and the administration provided free food. Within 24 hours of the GroupMe incident, Penn Police were working with the FBI and Microsoft (which owns GroupMe) to identify three Oklahoma residents as the suspected creators of the GroupMe, including a male student at the University of Oklahoma. A spokesperson for Microsoft emailed me a statement that the company also sent to other media outlets: “As soon as we became aware of the chats taking place on GroupMe, which were in violation of our terms of service, we took action to remove the chats and suspend associated user accounts.”

Penn students weren’t the only targets of GroupMe threats that day. Students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville were also added to the same chats, according to reports. Over the phone, Vanderbilt senior and student body president Ariana Fowler tells me she saw GroupMe screenshots from peers on Facebook on the night of November 11, and that she reported the incident to the Dean of Students and the Vanderbilt Police Department. Fowler launched her own amateur investigation, circulating emails and screenshots on social media. She estimates that 10 to 15 black and Muslim Vanderbilt students were added to the GroupMe, based on responses and communication with school officials. Citing reactions on campus after Trump won, Fowler says, “We had a lot of issues with students not understanding why their peers were saying they were afraid. This incident made it a very real manifestation of those fears.”

In an email sent to students on Sunday, November 13 (and forwarded to me), Vanderbilt’s Dean’s office stated: “The University has received reports that some Vanderbilt students were added to a racist Group Me account. This account includes vicious, racist messages and images with degrading and brutally violent content.” The email added that Vanderbilt police were conducting an investigation, encouraged students to use the school’s resources and reinforced that “bias-related harassment, intimidation and threats have no place at Vanderbilt and are antithetical to the values of our academic community.” Unlike at Penn, the incident was not reported as a crime at Vanderbilt. In an emailed statement, a Vanderbilt press rep wrote to me: “Vanderbilt University Police Department currently has not received any reports from students indicating they were directly targeted by the GroupMe message. The university is aware of some students on our campus who appear to have been forwarded the message, but not directly targeted.”

Similarly, the Penn administration sent multiple memos to update students about the investigation. The students I spoke with were curious how outsiders were able to gain access to freshmen contacts. In a memo on November 15, Gutmann revealed that the University of Oklahoma student had accepted an offer to attend Penn but ultimately chose not to enroll. Because of this, he still had access to a contact list through a private Facebook group consisting of freshmen. Authorities believe the student, whose name hasn’t been released, used the freshmen list to compile the racist GroupMe chat.

In her memo, Gutmann reiterated the school’s support and announced that the University of Oklahoma student suspect had been suspended from his school (Penn Police crime logs show a November 11 incident reported as a “terroristic threat”). Some Penn students were impressed with the university’s swift action. “They offered a safe space for black students, they brought in a cyber team right away, and they had detectives right away,” says Rogers. Another student I spoke to was uncertain whether the response was largely due to heightened media attention. There were reporters and cameras on campus and people were watching. When news reached the city’s mayor Jim Kenney, he issued a statement calling the actions “disgusting” and wrote: “It is heartbreaking to see this type of activity here in the birthplace of our democracy and the city of brotherly love.”

A rep for Gutmann declined an interview for this story but referred me to her various statements and video of a speech she made at a November 16 solidarity rally on campus. “At a time when people are so divided, this is hope that we are united as a university,” Gutmann told participants. “This is what higher education has to do.” Campus-wide, administrators echoed her support. On November 18, an open letter signed by a group of 473 Penn faculty members was published, asking Trump, as an alumni, to address the GroupMe incident. “We condemn the racist, xenophobic, sexist speech and behavior that you so consistently drew upon and also inspired during your campaign for President,” the letter states. “We implore you to immediately and publicly denounce Friday’s attack on our students.”

The Penn incident was among the first of multiple potential hate crimes and incidents reported in the week Trump was elected as president. As of December 16, 1,094 of those incidents had been reported post-election, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s running stats, compiled using information reported in news articles, on social media, and through submissions to their site. In a video statement on November 18, Attorney General Loretta Lynch noted: “These numbers should be deeply sobering for all Americans.” (Jezebel has started tracking incidents of hate crimes and incidents as well.)

There’s a legal distinction between a hate crime and a hate incident. The difference is a matter of degree, rather than kind, and laws can vary from state to state. Hate crimes legally classified as such can range from property defacement to murder, but in all cases, laws state that the offender must have demonstrated or performed actions that indicate the crime was committed for a bias reason. A hate incident (yelling a slur on the street, for instance) would typically be considered freedom of speech.

“There are no legal repercussions for a hate incident,” explains Heidi Beirich, head of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, the organization’s anti-terror arm. “It’s an exercise in freedom of speech and it’s up to authorities to determine when that speech becomes a terroristic threat, like in the Penn case, or is just somebody expressing nasty ideas, which they have every right to do under the First Amendment.” On the question of whether hate threats issued online legally qualify as hate crimes, Beirich explains, “If somebody writes something nasty about you online, shy of it being what they call in legal terms a ‘true threat’—in other words, where you could be subject to violence—it’s protected speech and it’s not a hate crime. We have been collecting information on hate incidents and hate crimes for years and rare is the day that you get this many potential hate crimes in a short period of time.”

What’s particularly tragic is that high schools and universities full of young people have been a hub for bigotry. In the lead-up to and the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, schools like Penn became a glaring microcosm of the world’s ills. Racist graffiti was reported four times at a high school in California throughout November, and on November 10, white male students at Villanova reportedly assaulted a black female student while yelling “Trump!”

“That entire notion that Trump’s base is a bunch of uneducated racists is just not true. These are educated people in college,” says Rogers. “Being at Trump’s alma mater, it’s scary to see these kinds of things happen at such an elite level of intellect and dialogue. These are our future lawyers, doctors, politicians, businessmen. These people are gonna be successful.”

All the while, there’s been criticism that Americans of all races, genders and creeds must unify, or that everyone is overreacting, or that the country and media are in the midst of a crippling identity crisis. Either way, the GroupMe incident reinforced a reality more people have begrudgingly accepted, which is that racism is far from an old white people problem.

This point, amplified by the election results, touches on a broad concern over Trump’s fomenting of future racists and who exactly qualifies as one in America. How do we keep intra-liberal debates about race from capsizing, while also protecting and empathizing with students facing discrimination? That is to say, how do we talk about hate?

Before the election dust even settled, voter demographics had been parsed to oblivion (including a next-day postmortem I wrote), with blame heaped upon nearly every subset of the Republic, from white people to Latinxs to black people to Democrats to Republicans to Hillary Clinton’s camp to Bernie Bros to Facebook to Russian hackers. What’s impossible to ignore is that a majority of white American voters proudly or secretly supported Trump. The reported demographic of Trump voters was not only largely white but also a mixture of working class, middle class, and affluent white Americans.

In keeping with its Ivy League peers, Penn’s student demographic is majority white; the fall 2015 class was reported as 44.3% white. For universities where racial tensions have been high for over a year, the Trump effect feels like a multi-pronged attack. Prior to the election, stories about racist incidents and campus protests plagued colleges like University of Missouri and Yale. By comparison, Penn had minimal instances of publicized unrest. The Penn students I spoke to over the phone consider their school to be predominantly liberal. Even Penn’s College Republicans organization denounced Trump as a candidate leading up to the election. One conservative student started a Penn for Trump club and shut it down after five months, citing Trump’s offensive Muslim ban as one reason. After the GroupMe incident, the Penn Republicans page posted a link to a news story about it on Facebook and wrote: “These messages are absolutely despicable. Hate such as this has no place on Penn’s campus or in our nation. Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected, and we hope that Penn administration and Penn police find the perpetrators as soon as possible.”

What the election of Trump punctuated, perhaps more than anything, is the talking point that the population of covert racists—which includes those who refuse the label, and yet exhibit or make excuses for racist tendencies—are as detrimental to progress as those who outwardly express hate. “It’s very clear to us, even from the results of Philadelphia, that a lot of the people who’ve been silent or agreeing were actually quite conservative and ended up voting for Trump,” says Ankuma. “When the election results came out, we realized how naive we’d been, thinking all the liberal momentum and open-minded policies were what everybody wanted.”

Right-wing supporters, largely, have argued that the hate crime figures being reported are exaggerated or misleading, or that in essence, these incidents have always happened across the country and it’s just that people are openly discussing and reporting them more. The New York Post used the phrase “hate-crime hysteria” to dismiss the reported surge. In a Forbes piece titled, “Are There Really More Hate Crimes At Schools Following Donald Trump’s Election?” writer Maureen Sullivan likewise questioned the reports and cited the prevalence of anti-Trump protesters:

What’s clear is that the widely reported episodes of violence and intimidation are usually vague, involve roaming gangs of indistinguishable white males, and produce no witnesses. Often the police aren’t even called, but when they are, the stories tend to fall apart. One University of Louisiana Lafayette freshman recanted her story of two white males, one in a Trump hat, stealing her wallet and hijab (a scarf that Muslim women wear to cover their head and neck) when confronted with contrary evidence.

This defense—that victims may be lying about or embellishing—only serves to invalidate personal experience rather than further discussion. It misses the point that seeing and ultimately feeling visible manifestations of the hatred and discrimination many people know to exist is important to getting to a point where minorities can move safely in a country or on a campus where they’re treated as foreign.

Certainly, as Quartz notes, hate-crime data are harder to compile on a national scale (according to FBI figures, hate crimes rose 6.8% from 2014 to 2015, particularly attacks against Muslims) than locally (New York officials noted a 35% rise in hate crimes since 2015). Indeed, it can seem like hate has become a mere trending topic in public. In a piece about the media’s apparent increased awareness, the Daily Dot points to ThinkProgress’ Mapping Hate graphic and the Texas Observer’s HateWatch.

According to Beirich, the SPLC is currently working on verifications. She emphasizes that hate crimes and incidents are, in actuality, often underreported. “There’s probably some more reporting than there would be normally, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a problem. A lot of people don’t want to come forward and even talk about hate crimes because they feel like their whole community might be subjected to violence, that it’ll be more than just the victimization of themselves,” she says. “I find the attempt to minimize this problem in the right-wing press extremely cynical, and to make light of the comments Trump made during the campaign as if bigotry and racism doesn’t matter. Well, it does and it has real world effects. Places like Breitbart that are connected to the campaign have acted like these things are hoaxes or that this isn’t a real problem. That just provides a massive opening for people to continue to conduct themselves in this way.”

Skepticism about the legitimacy of these crimes also ignores that hate crime perpetrators have directly referenced Trump, like in the Penn GroupMe incident. “These can be laid at the feet of Trump. There’s been enough research to show that hate speech, like he engaged in, targeting particular communities as being lesser, especially when it comes from the mainstream, can embolden people to commit acts of violence,” says Beirich. “Elections do produce a heightened environment, but this election produced particular outbursts against minority communities who were demonized by the Trump campaign,” she adds, citing the incidents of hate crimes after Obama was elected in 2008 for comparison. “It’s not the same thing, because Trump won. These people who are engaged in these attacks are emboldened winners. After Obama was elected, it was racist losers who went out and did attacks.”

Among young people, the much maligned safe spaces—which were, historically, popularized during the gay and feminist liberation movements of the ’60s and have a divisive past in political spaces (they’re either viewed as necessary or excessive)—are widely recognized as supportive sanctuaries to cope with oppressive conditions. The thinking is that these spaces create an embedded feeling of security, sprung from the idea that providing pockets of comfort serves a healing purpose. “None of us planned for what the world would look like if he won. Trump’s election was terrible for a lot of us who fall under the category of ‘enemy’ in Trump’s America,” says Penn senior Ankuma. “But if we stop doing what we’re doing and get sidetracked by our grieving or by our fear, then they’ve won and at that point we don’t have very much else to go.”

The safety net may even compel students like Rogers to become bolder activists. What strikes me is how students have become increasingly familiar with the term “safe space,” since universities like Penn have instituted more of them in recent years. During my time at NYU in the mid-2000s, there was no talk of safe spaces, but the safe space is now as common a college terminology as dorms and dining halls, which means students at Penn and elsewhere don’t know of a collegiate environment without them. But they’re also existing in an environment that seems to necessitate such mental retreats.

The day after Trump won the electoral vote, Penn and many other universities, including Michigan State, Iowa State, University of California, San Diego and George Mason, set up safe spaces on campus for students to decompress. One Penn dorm even offered a breathing space for students and equipped the room with a puppy, cats and snacks. College Fix reported that on the day after the election, the University of Michigan-Flint “sent three separate emails in the span of just five hours on Wednesday to console the campus community about the election and let students know where to find counseling and other resources.”

The criticism that safe spaces go overboard in coddling students and exacerbating so-called liberal PC culture—particularly on campuses where they’ve been set up for the black student body to deal with a climate of racism and micro-aggressions—is now thoroughly trod territory. Post-election, a columnist for the Albuquerque Journal referred to the safe space phenomenon as “hysteria,” while The New York Post published “Sorry kids: America isn’t a safe space.” Earlier, in a November 2015 article, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wrote that students have “weaponized the concept of ‘safe spaces,’” and Wall Street Journal noted that the safe space had “become a cudgel against outside criticism.”

In turn, Rae Ann Pickett wrote for Time in August of this year: “Some may say a commitment to free speech, by any means necessary, does more to foster a positive academic setting than safe spaces and trigger warnings. But the bigger question is: whose speech is being protected by these policies? They certainly don’t always foster a healthy relationship with students of color or survivors of trauma or those who live at the intersection of both.”

There are undoubtedly points where the safe space feels like self-parody—the puppy at Penn springs to mind, for example—and cross the line from protectiveness over to obligatory wokeness. But Ankuma argues that the benefits of them greatly outweigh the criticism. “Students of color step out of our comfort zones to learn more about people that look nothing like us all the time. We are code-switching constantly,” she says. “The people who mock safe spaces have true white privilege. Their appearance allows them easy assimilation into a predominantly white community. Safe spaces aren’t perfect, but they allow students of color that same sort of security.”

Penn junior Jocelyn Kemi Afadapa adds, “When people criticize safe spaces, they’re invalidating trauma that marginalized groups experience. Oftentimes, we as people of color, don’t feel safe nor wanted in many spaces in this country and in our campuses. So I don’t agree that it’s coddling. And saying that it is, is further dehumanizing people of color by implying that they don’t have fears or emotions. We’re allowed to cry. We’re allowed to be human.”

The safe space, of course, wouldn’t exist without the environments that historically necessitate them. After the GroupMe incident, an overwhelming amount of support poured in at Penn. This wasn’t always the case.

A black female student named Cathy Barlow is the main reason Penn’s all-black W.E.B. Du Bois College House exists. In 1968—as black students were still assimilating into Penn and facing discrimination from Penn Police in the process—Barlow organized a sit-in to force faculty to discuss implementing changes. Barlow then went about researching other black college houses before she helped to create Dubois. UMOJA formed in 1998, and it wasn’t until 2000 that Makuu: The Black Cultural Center launched as a physical space and resource for black students at Penn to organize.

Soon after I read about the GroupMe news, I noticed a Facebook post from a fellow writer, Imani Dawson, who’s a Penn alumna. In the note, she referenced similar racist incidents that took place there when she was a freshman in 1993, living in Du Bois. When we spoke over the phone, Dawson recalled the time an anonymous person made threatening racist phone calls to black freshman at Du Bois.

“We all got calls asking, ‘Is this the nigger dorm?’” Dawson remembers. Bomb threats were also called into Dubois College House while she was there, she says. “Twice in the middle of the night we had to evacuate the building,” she recalls. “We didn’t have the language to talk about it then, but I would characterize what happened as domestic terrorism. And the school did nothing to address the issues, nothing to provide support to its students. The University of Pennsylvania had a history of being an unfriendly place for black alums. You can talk to people who were there throughout the generations and there are stories of being othered at the school.”

The sentiment should be familiar to anyone who’s followed the racial tensions at predominantly white prestige universities. Dawson says she was frustrated but not surprised that “stories of being othered” are still happening at Penn. “When I saw that it happened to the class of 2020, my heart broke because I know what it feels like to be really excited and really proud that you worked hard to get into one of the best schools in the country,” she says, “And then to be made to feel unwanted, to be threatened, for people to treat you like you’re not as good as the rest of your classmates is a horrific, really chilling and terrifying place to be, especially given the climate of the country right now.”

Over the years, there’ve been other isolated racist incidents at Penn. Notably, in 1993, controversy erupted on campus after a freshman named Eden Jacobowitz shouted, “Shut up, you water buffalo” to a group of black young women making noise outside his window. He was later accused of racial harassment, an incident that Philly Magazine contextualized as “the ultimate example of political correctness run amok,” and references the argument Greg Lukianoff makes in his book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate:

The international outrage over what happened to Jacobowitz should have stopped PC in its tracks. Instead, that outrage was swept aside by a rising tidal wave of people claiming offense over nonsense. In the decades since, PC has spiraled out of control, starting on college campuses and graduating into the real world, eventually splitting the nation into two sides, red and blue, that don’t speak to one another, despise each other, and don’t even bother to try to understand the other’s point of view.

More recently, in December 2014, Phi Delta Theta sent around a Christmas card that featured a blow-up doll with dark skin and red lips among the frat brothers. The frat apologized but ridiculously claimed the doll was a depiction of Beyoncé. “I don’t know if everybody else felt this way, but I don’t think the university did that much to support us, because the frat was still allowed to have a rush class,” says Penn junior Afadapa. “There weren’t really any reprimands. In previous years, before I came to Penn, they would have ghetto parties. That was a phenomenon within the Ivy Leagues.”

The idea of a safe space was non-existent to Penn and other students in the ’90s, at a time when it would’ve been nice to have a place to retreat, and even two years ago students felt a lack of faculty support. “Schools generally want to protect their reputation. Nobody wants to be known as a place for intolerance, a place where this kind of behavior is permitted. But when you don’t do anything, when you don’t address it, your silence is essentially approval,” says Dawson. “The saving grace for me was because we all went through it. So you’re able to draw strength from the fact that you’re not going through it alone. But in terms of help from the actual university, administrators doing anything about it, we got no support. We had a meeting with the student representative from the local NAACP branch and that is about as far as it went.”

It’s tempting to categorize the University of Oklahoma GroupMe suspect as a teenager who seized an opportunity to troll unsuspecting peers, but the argument that he may not be a textbook racist undercuts the fact that he willingly took racist actions. One result of the election is the reluctance to classify every Trump supporter as racist, which seems like a delicate dance around rhetoric. If not racist, then certainly they’re peripherally contributing to a violent environment that begets more violence.

The legitimate argument around over-policing gets muddled when you view the abundance of safe spaces today in the context of past personal experiences such as Dawson’s, which should spark empathy or in some way alter the way people criticize safe spaces or perceive the conversation around them as nauseating. “We talk about the importance of people who live in rural areas and how middle America has basically been dismantled,” says Dawson. “Their experience is valid, but so is the kid who maybe came from a bad neighborhood, was smart and worked hard to forge a path into a school like Penn. There needs to be respect for their experience, too.”

Culture Editor, Jezebel


Crispin Waugh

Who would choose OU over Penn? I was going to go to an Ivy, but then I got into OU and just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to live in Norman, OK for the next 4 years.