An Open Letter to San Jose State University
by Alyx Goodwin
It’s beginning to feel ironic that I got my first taste of Black activism and hands-on organizing experience at San Jose State University (SJSU) in San Jose, CA. Everyday I see articles published that outline the tech boom and the different ways it’s touching the Bay Area. “Innovative” was always the buzzword on campus, even though you could walk a block off in any direction and find a lackthereof in the form of homelessness and low-income families. But it was still innovative for my peers and I getting our first experiences with activism. In many ways, I thought SJSU was a shining example of why you should go to college; not just for a career but a learning experience. To me SJSU represented progress.
In 2013, when word of a hate crime first surfaced I recall Black students planning and mobilizing immediately and I just kept thinking, “How did this happen? How is this happening now?” As more details surfaced there was no question that this “incident” was racially motivated. Donald Williams, Jr., a Black SJSU student, had spoken up about the multiple encounters he had with his racist roommates that included being given the nickname “three-fifths” and having a u-shaped bike lock forced around his neck. Yet as time passed and we were informed there would be a trial, all of our confidence in understanding the nature of this occurrence couldn’t counter the lingering fear that these young white racist men wouldn’t face any repercussions. “Just pranks” their defense shared, “political satire” they described in regards to swastikas and a confederate flag hung in this Black student’s living space.
Last week the verdict was announced: no charges for a hate crime. Questions swirled through my head like, “How is a non-Black jury going to decide what qualifies as a hate crime against a Black person?” “How did the parents of these ‘pranksters’ feel and did they even make an effort to understand how this Black American family must feel?” “Is SJSU going to do more than that task force?” I realized there were more layers to why I was so bothered. I became a Black student activist at SJSU, I bought into the glamour of attending the “most diverse Cal State”, and I was naive enough to expect more from a university that proudly touts the histories of civil rights activists on everything from shirts sold in the Student Union to literature and collateral about our university.
When Tommie Smith and John Carlos attended State and won 1st and 3rd place in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they returned to racism in the form of housing discrimination, verbal abuse, and poverty – despite the iconic stance they took on their podiums. As Black and Afro-Latino men in the late 60’s, the discrimination they faced would have never been put on trial because it was so normalized. Yet 37 years later, in 2005, SJSU unveiled statues of Tommie Smith and John Carlos to pay homage to their legacy of standing up in the face of injustice. These statues are now iconic symbols of San Jose State University, symbols the University has no problem using to advertise the campus as one that supports social progress. And in 2016, a Black SJSU student had the chance at a trial that these men didn’t have and got nothing.
I met John Carlos and Dr. Harry Edwards on separate occasions while at State. Both shared their experiences and insights on Black student activism and to this day those were some of my most memorable moments from attending SJSU. So why is it that this same institution that actively celebrates the legacies of these athletes and activists is the same place that has been relatively silent in regards to a hate crime against a Black student on their campus? That’s not innovative, that’s not progress and a statement about a new chief diversity officer is not enough.
This is the same institution with a library named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., like so many other schools that use King as a ward to claims of racism. But looking back, this is the library that sealed the deal in my choosing to attend SJSU. This is the same school that brought Angela Davis to speak to an auditorium full of students, not once but twice in five years. The first time–my freshman year in 2009–convinced me that SJSU was where I needed to be. This is the same SJSU that honors the legacies of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Yoshira Uchida. I worked in the Cesar Chavez Community Action Center on campus, and this is the Center that kept me focused and inspired me to pursue a career that would allow me to make an impact working for people of color. San Jose State uses the legacies of these names to get students of color to buy into the diversity claim and then carry on these important histories, yet when these same students face injustices of their own they are forced to carry the burden without administrative support.
Within the last year we’ve seen Black students from around the country speak up and out against the injustices they face on their campuses. These students created photo essays, videos, wrote in major publications, organized, and published demands addressing everything from microaggressions to tangible racism and Black hatred from their peers and school administrations. The conversation around the Black experience in American educational institutions is getting louder. Here we are, in 2016, with a hate crime on trial in an American court of law and this is the test to see if America has been listening or learned anything. And America failed this test. Again. What message does this send? The system was not created to protect us and as a result, another Black voice, another Black experience, has been silenced and invalidated.
The city of San Jose itself is changing as tech startups are constantly making their way to Silicon Valley. San Jose is the same city Angela Davis was tried in for conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder in 1972. The same city Cesar Chavez became an organizer in with the Mexican American community. However, the legacies of these activists that made tremendous strides for people of color in San Jose — and around the country — are being drowned out by the growing narrative of capitalism masked as innovation. So, for a non-Black jury to decide that what that Black San Jose State student experienced wasn’t racial hatred, I’m not surprised. It’s reflective of history’s efforts to silence the Black community. It’s reflective of the changing environment in San Jose that is raising rents and ignoring the implications this has on its lower-income residents. Nobody saw racial hatred in this case because white people are constantly exonerating themselves from their wrong-doings in the name of progress and innovation.
What Donald Williams, Jr. experienced were hate crimes. SJSU needs to admit that they have ignored Black students needs for too long, instead opting to facilitate an environment in which bigotry is an option, rather than a non-negotiable.
Alyx Goodwin is a staff writer for the Afrikan Black Coalition, with her own blog coming soon. You can find more information on that plus her daily musing about race, culture, politics and whatever else floats through her timeline on Twitter @AGtheGiant