Oberlin College has seen no fewer than seven alleged bias incidents in the last month — five separate acts of racist and homophobic graffiti, one robbery, and a sighting of a figure in a klan robe. The college cancelled classes this Monday for a series of all-campus events relating to the incidents, and as many as a third of Oberlin’s undergraduates are said to have attended a rally against hate that afternoon.
Recently, however, some have alleged that the whole string of incidents may have been invented.
On Tuesday, Michelle Malkin accused the college’s students of “manufacturing hate crimes hoaxes.” Similarly, an article in the Daily Caller declared that, “given the liberal culture at Oberlin,” it is “highly unlikely that the student perpetrators were motivated by racial (or anti-gay or anti-Semitic) animus.” It’s far more plausible, that writer suggests, that “the students who vandalized the campus wanted to call attention to the horror of hate crimes by committing faux hate crimes themselves.”
As I was writing this story Peter Wood, president of the conservative National Association of Scholars, chimed in with a similar allegation, saying that “the racial and anti-gay provocations scrawled on several posters and notes appear now to have been the work of two student hoaxers.”
What’s the evidence for these charges? It turns out that there isn’t much.
Oberlin police have suggested that the “klansman” a student saw on campus late on Sunday night may have been a person who was later seen on campus wrapped in a blanket. The two sightings were half a mile away from one another, however, and the student who made the klan report insists that she could not have been mistaken. A college spokesperson late Tuesday indicated that the incident remained unresolved.
Even if the klan incident was a case of mistaken identity, moreover, that doesn’t point toward a hoax. And as of right now the evidence that the earlier graffiti incidents were falsified is thin at best.
The first suggestion that the graffiti might have been fake came in a Monday Gawker story that quoted “a person with knowledge of faculty and administration discussion” as saying that he or she had heard that unofficial reports had suggested that a student connected with the Oberlin Multicultural Resource Center was behind the vandalism. That Gawker report, however, was later updated to stress that the anonymous third-hand allegation was nothing more than “a rumor.”
While the Gawker allegation was refuted almost as quickly as it appeared, conservative writers have leaned heavily on a story in the Guardian that quoted an Oberlin police spokesperson as saying that his “understanding” was that two students were involved in the graffiti, and that they had been identified and removed from campus. Later in the story the Guardian writer — no longer citing the officer — said that it remained “unclear if they were motivated by racial hatred, or – as has been suggested – were attempting a commentary on free speech.”
Conservative commenters have made much of Oberlin’s refusal to identify the race of the suspects or to comment on their motivations, but such a response is entirely appropriate, particularly given the fact that the accused appear to be students — and the fact that, according to Oberlin’s student newspaper, at least one of those students has denied responsibility for the graffiti.
It does not appear, however, that Oberlin is treating the situation as a hoax perpetrated by two (identified and neutralized) students. The campus has stepped up security measures and police patrols this week, and just yesterday the college announced that it had asked for and received the assistance of the FBI in investigating the incidents.
Hoax hate crimes are not unheard-of on American campuses, and it’s possible that some or all of this semester’s Oberlin incidents will prove to be examples of that. But there is as of now no publicly available evidence indicating that either Oberlin or the police have made such a determination.
Meanwhile, evidence to the contrary — that these were in fact actual bias crimes — continues to mount.
Oberlin’s student newspaper reported this morning that individuals expressing bigoted views have been active in recent months on various social media sites with ties to Oberlin. They quote the founder of one such site, who shut down his service when it became a magnet for bigoted postings, as saying that he saw the recent wave of graffiti as “a natural escalation” of what he had recently witnessed online.
Oberlin’s Dean of Students concurred, saying there had been “a flood of racist propaganda on campus in recent weeks, including general references to the KKK and other white supremacist groups.” Meanwhile, several faculty members of color have this week reported incidents of online harassment that took place prior to Monday’s cancellation of classes.
In just about every false hate-crime act I’ve seen on American campuses in the two decades I’ve been paying attention to this stuff, the hoax was a one-time thing, either an isolated incident or a faked campaign against a “target” who later turned out to be the perpetrator. The Oberlin situation, in which a variety of attacks have been launched across a number of online platforms and in real life over a period of months, doesn’t fit the pattern.
Again, it’s possible that these are all hoaxes. But the suggestion that they’ve been proven to be hoaxes, or that they’re presumptively hoaxes?
The evidence just isn’t there.