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By Steve Duin at The Oregonian
In catching up with the city after a long weekend away, few stories are as puzzling or discouraging as the tale of all that “racially charged language, intentional or not,” that energized a beer-pong game at Lewis & Clark College.
And while beer pong is not designed to be prelude to a thoughtful discussion on anything beyond elbow overhang and cheap beer, what is especially discouraging is the college administration’s decision to disdain further comment on what appears to be a painful overreaction of discipline.
Six months ago, 20 football players were partying in a private dorm room in Holmes Residence Hall. In the froth of the moment, one African American christened his squad “Team Nigga,” inspiring one of his buddies to celebrate “white power” each time his pong-pong ball found the beer cup.
By all accounts, this was a long-running joke between the Pioneer teammates. They are comfortable enough with one another that the words have been rendered harmless. Everyone around the table apparently understood that.
Unfortunately, sound travels down a dorm hall. Another student apparently heard the chants and reported them to her hall adviser.
That’s where this brouhaha should have ended. With a roll of the eyes, a knock on a dorm-room door, and an order to keep it classy during the rowdy drinking games.
But no. Suddenly, there’s a formal investigation. A College Review Board hearing and witness lists. Written reprimands, unconditional probation, and the announcement that these athletes need — sigh — “bias reduction and bystander intervention” training.
When the students appealed, they were informed of the following by Kelly Hoover, the campus living director, and Associate Dean of Student Engagement Tricia Brand:
“Your use of racially charged language, intentional or not, was reckless and created an environment where others in the space felt it was necessary to correct your behavior. More broadly, your actions caused reasonable apprehension of harm to the community.”
Beyond that inflammatory language, however, Lewis & Clark has declined comment. Citing privacy concerns that no longer apply, they’ve abandoned the debating floor to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the hootenanny on Oregonlive.
I don’t think this collegiate melodrama says much of anything about race and free speech in America. What we have here, instead, is a failure to communicate on a Saturday night, a relatively minor breakdown that spun out of control, and into Saturday-Night-Live style parody, because far too few folks at Lewis & Clark trust we can work through these misunderstandings with a simple, heartfelt conversation or two.
Beer-pong games and hallway conversations lend themselves to such intimacy. On Palatine Hill, College Review Board hearings clearly don’t.