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Here We Go Again ...

Yesterday, Cornellians received a somber message from the President, which began like so:

Fellow Cornellians,

This past weekend, we were stunned and outraged to learn that a visitor to Cornell had been stabbed on our campus, and that one of our students has been charged with the crime. The victim of the assault is an African American student visiting Cornell from Union College. He was hospitalized at Arnot Ogden Hospital in Elmira, NY. We are greatly relieved that he is recovering and may be released from the hospital very soon. We extend our heartfelt feelings of concern and support to him and wish him a speedy and complete recovery.

Following an initial investigation into the stabbing, which occurred early Saturday morning on West Avenue, Cornell University Police arrested Nathan H. Poffenbarger, a 20 year-old Caucasian male, of 10703 Coppermine Road, Woodsboro, Md. Poffenbarger is a sophomore at Cornell University. On Sunday morning, he was arraigned on assault charges in the second degree, a class "D" felony. The Cornell University Police are working actively and closely with the Ithaca Police Department and the Office of the District Attorney. They are continuing their investigation into the case.

Rawlings takes pains to point out the races of both the victim and the alleged perpetrator, but he never explains why. Reports in The Sun have pointed to likely racial motivations behind the attack, but Rawlings doesn't even allude to them. Instead, he breaks the cardinal rule of sensitivity: only report the race if there's a justification for it. Lame appeals to sympathy or "diversity" don't cut it, and using the preferred "African American" instead of "black" (or "Caucasian" instead of "white") doesn't hide what he's doing. By trying to dodge the real issue, Rawlings comes off as ignorant of the very lessons taught in Cornell's freshman diversity seminars.

The Sun commits a similar mistake in its reporting. Although the likely nature of the crime justifies the disclosure of the students' races, the stories do not include the race of the alleged perpetrator. That's just as unfair; we shouldn't have to presume that people are white unless told otherwise. All or none, folks, all or none.

Now wouldn't it be nice if, for once, instead of idiotic grandstanding, we'd have our president say something meaningful in a situation like this? It's too bad that Rawlings is just as bad as Lehman in this regard. As The Sun editorialized, broadcasting outrage and calling for the inevitable mandatory diversity training sessions won't do a thing to actually solve the problem -- they don't even stop Rawlings himself from making careless mistakes in print. The editors wrote, "Another diversity seminar or an added Blue Light phone is not enough. A bolder move is needed, and that move must begin with a united campus." That's absolutely right, and it comes from the experience of decades of these sorts of responses that both students and alumni alike should be familiar with by now.

For starters, Rawlings needs to take steps, now, to make sure that Cornell doesn't degenerate into warring factions accusing each other of fanning the flames of violence. He needs to make crystal clear the fact that Cornell's white students stand in solidarity with the victim, and that there needs to be a united front against this sort of violence -- not the ridiculous cycle of isolation and accusation that has passed for racial dialogue on this supposedly enlightened campus since 1969.

(Crossposted: the guess pulpit)

Andy Guess | Posted on February 22, 2006 (#)


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