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UW-Madison Alumni Request Chancellor Blank Address Racial Climate After Offensive Costume

More Than 160 People Sign Letter Calling For Discussion Surrounding Racial Climate

Camp Randall Stadium
Aaron Gash/AP Photo

A group of University of Wisconsin-Madison African-American alumni sent a letter with more than 160 signatures to the university’s chancellor Tuesday afternoon expressing their frustrations with the racial climate on campus.

The letter was written to Chancellor Rebecca Blank after an individual wore a President Barack Obama mask and noose costume to Saturday’s Badger football game.

“We raise several concerns (in the letter) that what happened this past weekend is not an isolated incident and there’s been a history of incidents,” UW-Madison alumna Valyncia Raphael said. “We’re requesting some time to have a productive and efficient meeting about what are we going to do next because what happened, it just can’t happen anymore.”

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The letter gives examples of recent racist incidents, such as a student receiving an offensive anonymous note containing the “N” word and a diversity information bulletin board being set on fire in a residence hall. The letter also sites examples dating back to 2000, 1988 and the 1920s.

“The racism is very inherent within the fabric of the university, and it’s evident in some of these incidents that have played out for decades,” Raphael said.

Staff at Saturday’s football game asked the individual to remove the noose from his costume, but the student was not ejected from Camp Randall Stadium. A statement from UW-Madison and a separate statement from Blank said the costume was offensive, but the individual was exercising their right to free speech.

“As offensive as this costume was, I believe our university must resist the desire to outlaw firms of speech and political dissent with which we disagree,” Blank wrote in her statement. “We strive to build a campus community in which ideas and expression are exchanged freely, but also constructively, respectfully and in a manner that advances educational opportunities for our students.”

Samantha Harris, director of policy research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, agreed that in this case, the costume would fall under free speech.

“Hate speech is not a category of speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment across the board,” Harris said. “The kinds of speech that are unprotected, like harassment and threats, depends very much on context.”

Harris gave the example of someone having the right to dress up as a Ku Klux Klan member, however inadvisable that may be, she said. However, if they wear that same costume in an African-American dorm at night, then the incident would be considered as threatening and not protected by the First Amendment.

In the letter sent by the alumni, it states they honor free speech, but they disagree the costume was protected under law. They said because the noose represents lynching, it is offensive and threatening to the African-American community.

From 1882 to 1968, about 4,745 people were lynched in America, according to data from Tuskegee University. The majority, 3,446, were African-Americans.

Blank and UW-Madison Athletic Director Barry Alvarez released a statement Tuesday evening saying there will be a review of stadium policies to prevent symbols of racial hatred from entering the stadium in the future.

“We have work to do at UW-Madison on campus climate issues, and an incident like this only deepens the divides across campus,” Blank and Alvarez wrote.

The letter sent to Blank was signed by UW-Madison alumni, white and nonwhite, people who attended the university but did not graduate, current students and former staff members. The idea for the letter was started on social media and signatures were collected through two UW-Madison African-American alumni Facebook pages, texts, emails and a Google Document. Raphael took a lead role in drafting the letter, but many others contributed during revisions.

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