Op-Ed: Unaddressed Issues Require Equally Passionate Response

Alex LaFerla, Staff Writer

The response to the hateful and inflammatory graffiti found on the side of Dascomb Hall on April 17 was bold, powerful and extremely valuable.

Immediately after the graffiti was discovered, a group of concerned students alerted the rest of the student body and swiftly organized in opposition. Further outraged by the College’s perceived lack of acknowledgment of the incident, concerned students arranged a protest, which drew large numbers of Oberlin students, faculty and staff. The event demonstrated just how quickly and effectively Oberlin students could stand together in solidarity when faced with such a violation.

What the reaction to this incident has also made clear, however, is that Oberlin students and the administration currently share a narrow and incomplete definition of social justice. This was by no means the only recent attack, psychological or otherwise, to affect Oberlin and the surrounding community, yet it is the only affront we as a group feel compelled to respond to with any palpable degree of urgency.

The increase in physical attacks on campus seems to be a logical starting point for a discussion of unacknowledged issues in our community. Last weekend, a female student was assaulted while walking home in Oberlin’s business district. I learned about this incident by spotting a small, yellow flyer as I walked out the back door of Firelands. As of this writing, I am surprised and disappointed to say that I have neither read nor heard anything else related to this event, and it is likely that few Oberlin students have either. This is but one instance of an alarming number of physical attacks perpetrated on and around Oberlin campus in recent months, including a string of assaults that occurred in October and November.

After coming under pressure to do so, President Krislov personally condemned the graffiti in three e-mails to students. Yet the student body does not demand that the administration respond to other issues of discrimination or violence in the same way.

Attacks aimed at Oberlin students are by no means limited to physical crimes or to incidents that occur on campus. Nor must they necessarily affect students directly. Although these past few months have generated a degree of social unrest unrivaled in Ohio or the rest of the nation for quite some time, all but a small minority of Oberlin students remains silent on the issues that threaten some of America’s most vulnerable communities.

Recently, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan proposed a Federal budget plan that he claims would help rein in the deficit. However, this plan does nothing of the sort, instead shifting the burden of Medicare and Medicaid payments onto the poor and the elderly while providing further tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. Similarly, Senate Bill 5, a piece of legislation passed in Ohio last month, strips Public Sector employees of hard-won rights and benefits, amounting to a direct assault on what was once a robust middle class.

Many Oberlin students choose to distance themselves from these institutionalized issues of discrimination. These acts should be unconscionable to a predominantly liberal student body that claims to be progressive. Yet sadly, Oberlin students failed to show up in meaningful numbers to a rally held in Tappan Square several weeks ago in solidarity with local union members. While these issues may seem unrelated to last week’s events, we should remember that all forms of discrimination, as well as physical violence, are equally offensive.

This is a point that many leaders among Oberlin students fail to acknowledge. The initial e-mail informing students of the slanderous graffiti came from a group calling themselves the “concerned communities within your student body.” In its e-mail, this committee emphasized Oberlin’s progressive values and attempted to tie itself to larger-scale issues of equality, writing “… we exist within structures of inequality and are not separate from local, national and global struggles for justice.” So far, I have seen very little evidence of any effort to tackle regional and national issues with the same intensity we saw in reaction to the bigoted remarks on Dascomb.

Oberlin must deal with all of these important issues, and many others, with the same degree of thoughtfulness, energy and enthusiasm that we saw in response to the graffiti on Dascomb. Last week’s outcry should serve as inspiration to Oberlin students who are concerned with other social problems. Despite a long-standing reputation as a bastion of liberal thought, we must keep in mind that invoking progressive values and fighting for progressive causes are not one and the same.

I encourage those who participated in last week’s protest to see this recent struggle as one form of attack among many and to engage in the same way with other perceived wrongs. If we aim to struggle for true justice in all respects, as I think most would agree we must, we cannot continue to greet certain ills with outrage and others with apathy and confusion.