Addressing Anti-Asian Speech at Oxy


A follow-up from President Elam regarding recent social media posts containing racist speech.

Dear Occidental Community,

Today my inbox has been filled with outraged reactions to the racist text messages sent by an Oxy student last year that were recently circulated by others on social media. When I first encountered these messages yesterday, my reaction was much like yours: I was sickened and saddened by what I read. My heart, along with my care and support, goes out to our community as a whole and especially our Asian and Asian American students, staff, and faculty. Certainly, as evidenced by the outpouring of emails, this is a moment that touches us at our core. I, like so many of you, came to Oxy in no small part because of the College’s commitment to social justice, its belief in upholding diversity and inclusion. In my first year, I pledged to you in creating an Equity and Justice Agenda that these issues are front and center. This racist text message, however, serves as a jarring reminder of the magnitude of our task. As your president, I am deeply impacted by all that has transpired and determined to move us forward in ways that can address this glaring wound.

In the messages we have received, the community demands to know what our college, and its administration, are going to do about this situation. You have called on us to “be better.” You have pointed out that these racist comments do not reflect the kind of respect for others and culture of care that we extol. These principles cannot be mere rhetoric; they must be lived in daily practice. Certainly we have, as an administration, repeatedly spoken out against racial hatred and bigotry. Still, seeing one of our own, a student at Oxy, express such vile opinions is deeply troubling. We clearly must do more to educate and prevent such behavior in the future, and we need to take immediate steps to heal.

In the last two days, our Student Affairs team has been focused on supporting individual students affected by this incident. I have asked the Dean of Students and the Vice President for Equity and Justice to mount programming across the campus that enables students, staff and faculty to voice their concerns and to share their empathy for others, most specifically our Asian and Asian American community. I will consult with experts who deal with hateful speech and bigotry on campuses for input about programming we can provide. We will hold restorative circles and begin cultural competency workshops. I will reach out personally to meet with student groups next week and offer these dialogues through the semester. We have and will continue to conduct threat assessments through Campus Safety and the College’s Threat Assessment Team to ensure the safety of our entire community. We will make every effort to build bridges across differences that protect and buttress our community. As your president, I remain committed to ensuring that we are a place that does not just give lip service to these issues, but rather a college that puts these beliefs into action.

Still, many of you are perplexed at why the College has not taken punitive action in this case. Our policies must comply with California law. Oxy is bound by California's "Leonard Law," which says that private colleges cannot punish student speech that would be protected by the First Amendment. Our Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation policy incorporates this protection by requiring Oxy to review allegations of harassment in light of student free speech rights. As difficult as it may be to reconcile, a private text conversation, which is not targeted at an individual and does not represent a credible threat, does not necessarily constitute unlawful harassment.

Still, this case is not just about one student. It is about our College’s culture and what we want to achieve as a community. I will, in turn, ask you all to join with me in our efforts to create an anti-racist environment. I look forward to meeting and talking with you all and working together to effect change.

Sincerely,

President Harry Elam