03 racist incidents college campuses
Concerns grow over racist incidents on campus
03:21 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Racist incidents involving bananas, nooses have created tumultuous end-of-year climate

In response American University administrators created safe space, allowed postponement of finals

CNN  — 

It’s mid-May, and the talk around American University should be of graduation, internships and students’ plans for the summer. Instead, it’s about nooses and bananas.

Administrators at the Washington, D.C. school have been meeting with students and addressing a litany of demands after someone earlier this month sneaked around campus in the middle of the night hanging bananas from nooses.

Now, only days after AU’s 2017 graduates collected their hard-earned degrees, the FBI and United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia are helping campus police investigate what the school is calling a hate crime.

“We are working as hard as we can to identify those responsible for the egregious, racist, hateful act,” university President Neil Kerwin said in a statement last week.

Hate crime, or terrorism?

The school has released surveillance video of the May 1 incident and offered a $1,000 reward for information “leading to positive suspect identification.”

The university also has turned a yet-to-open cafe into a sanctuary for students and allowed students of color to postpone their final exams. Both actions came in response to student demands.

Though several blogs and media outlets referred to the sanctuary move as “segregation” and said American was banning white students from the coffee shop, university spokeswoman Camille Lepre called the characterization “completely false.”

“All spaces on our campus, including those dedicated to healing and sanctuary, are open to all students who honor the environment’s purpose as a place where people can feel confident they will not be exposed to discrimination, harassment or other harm,” she said. “We did not and would not exclude students based on race.”

Black student president targeted

The bananas carried messages, such as "Harambe bait" and a reference to a black sorority.

If the banana hanger’s intent wasn’t clear – and to most students, it was, considering later that day a black woman took the student government’s helm for the first time ever – the dangling fruits carried messages.

One said, “Harambe Bait,” a reference to the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla killed last year after dragging a child through its enclosure; another said, “AKA Free,” a shot at the African-American sorority of which the new student government president, Taylor Dumpson, is a member.

What it’s like to be a target of hate

“We … urge American University to strengthen the security measures on campus to keep its SGA President, who also is an Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority member, other Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority members and African Americans on campus safe,” the sorority said in a statement.

One pair of bananas was found at a shuttle stop outside a dormitory, another near the student center and cafeteria and a third near the university’s East Quad Building, situated along a popular green space, Lepre said.

This was not the first time this school year that American’s black students were the subject of racist attacks, nor was it the first to employ bananas, Dumpson told CNN.

“There were other troubling incidents. Every year since I arrived at school we’ve had an incident that involved hate directed at black students and one at Jewish students,” she said, referring in the latter instance to a swastika scrawled on a dry-erase board.

According to the school newspaper, The Eagle, the university held an emergency town hall in September after students at a residence hall reported white students leaving a rotten banana at one black freshman’s door and throwing a banana at another black student.

Campus mood ‘has been united’

Meetings and protests have dominated a month normally devoted to end-of-semester studies and celebrations. On May 2, university administrators seeking to address students’ concerns were met with a list of 13 demands from student groups, including the Black Student Alliance and NAACP.

They included several demands pertinent to the racist attacks, including training programs for faculty and hiring more professors of color, and also seemingly unrelated items such as demanding the university divest Israel and fossil fuels and transfer budgeting power to students.

Dumpson held a town hall that week, drawing 350 to 400 students, and devised another list of areas in which the school could improve safety, its racial climate and campus life. She later took the proposed initiatives, which emphasize transparency and building trust, to administrators.

Despite the dialogue, distraught students – some with tape across their mouths – blocked a tunnel under Bender Arena on May 5. There, they made the aforementioned demands – sanctuary, extension on finales, etc. – which were agreed to by Provost Scott Bass.

War on campus: The battle over free speech

Bass told students he had also deployed campus police to protect Dumpson after a white supremacist group had urged its followers to troll her online, according to the school paper.

More meetings are imminent, said Lepre, the university spokeswoman. After convening with 22 students, many of whom were behind the lists of demands, administrators agreed to set up future sit-downs to discuss funding for student clubs committed to social endeavors, an enhanced space for African-American students and developing more student groups representing minorities, she said.

“We need to create a more inclusive community. We have embarked on that prior to this incident and are increasing our efforts,” Lepre said.

Dumpson could not be reached Tuesday for comment, but asked last week about the mood on campus since May 1, she told CNN, “It has been united. I have received so much support from so many students. … The university has responded and taken some good steps. They are concentrating on long-term solutions, but I also think we need to take action on short-term solutions like getting better and more surveillance cameras on campus.”

CNN’s Sara Sidner and Sheena Jones contributed to this report