[EDITOR'S NOTE: The University of Chicago has determined that the Facebook incident was not, in fact, due to hacking. Find the most up-to-date news here.]
A group of University of Chicago students who petitioned the school to address its alleged “culture of racial intolerance” are now facing threats of violence that federal authorities are investigating.
This week, the Facebook account of a student was hacked, and an explicit threat was posted about a student who circulated the petition.
In an email to students, university President Robert J. Zimmer and provost Eric Isaacs condemned the attack, calling it “unacceptable” and saying that “an investigation is underway with the help of federal law enforcement agencies and third-party website providers to see if we can determine who posted the message.”
The FBI would not confirm or deny whether it was involved in investigating the incident.
“This comes in the midst of other incidents in which members of our community have felt targeted, harassed, or threatened on the basis of their identity. Harassment and threats on the basis of identity are completely antithetical to the values of the University and will not be tolerated,” stated the University of Chicago email, which was obtained by RedEye.
An online petition demanding measures such as racial sensitivity training and a more diverse faculty began circulating after students complained about classmates wearing racist Halloween costumes.
“Everything started the night of Halloween. I was on a [campus] shuttle and I noticed a person wearing a cholo costume,” said Vincente Perez, a 20-year-old University of Chicago student, describing a derogatory term for Mexican-American men.
The costumed student, whom Perez describes as being of Asian descent, was wearing a red bandanna, dark sunglasses and a plaid flannel shirt with only the top button buttoned. His pants were sagging to reveal black basketball shorts.
“As we were getting off I was saying things like, ‘Thanks for the racist costume, think about what you’re doing, it’s really [bleeping] racist,’” Perez said. “[The costumed person and his friends] weren’t really responding to us. They basically scoffed at us.”
Shortly afterward, Facebook photos surfaced of what appeared to be students wearing similar clothing. One posed with his hands behind his back while an apparently white student pretended to beat him.
Calling the Halloween costumes emblematic of an unfriendly campus environment for students of color, Perez and others delivered a written statement to the administration last week requesting “drastic change in the way that diversity is understood at this institution.”
A meeting Friday between university representatives, Perez and Jaime Sanchez, the statement’s other author, was constructive, according to university spokesman Jeremy Manier.
“University leaders will move forward with a thoughtful response soon, and will continue working with students, staff and faculty to move these issues forward,” Manier wrote in an email to RedEye.
But the school’s response did not satisfy Perez and Sanchez, who opted to begin circulating an online petition.
“We’ve given the university an entire week to respond, and that’s a lot, given that Halloween was a few weeks ago,” Perez said. “Every step of the way we’ve given the administration time to respond and they haven’t shown us that it’s a priority. That in itself is another slap in the face.”
Among the petition’s demands: required courses on race and ethnicity; more effort to hire and retain diverse faculty; and disciplinary protocols to deal with students who engage in “discriminatory actions.”
The racist Halloween costumes are just one example of a campus culture that does not fully include minorities, Sanchez said.
“Students of color at the University of Chicago are academically disenfranchised,” said Sanchez, 21. Minority students are expected to be the spokesmen and spokeswoman for their backgrounds in the classroom, he said, and are pressured to endure subtle racism without complaint.
Manier declined to respond to accusations that the campus environment is unfriendly to students of color, adding that an official statement from the university is forthcoming.
On Tuesday night, the Facebook account of one of Perez’s friends was hacked, and the hacker posted a threat that mentioned Perez by name. The post, obtained by RedEye, states in part, “Vincente you are next. None of your profiles are safe. This is the beginning of our rape season ... .”
About 44 percent of students at the College of the University of Chicago--that is, mainly undergraduate students--are white, and 8.5 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent data available from the university’s registrar. Seventeen percent of undergraduate students identify as Asian, 4.7 percent as black, and 3.5 percent as multi-racial.
A campus that is nearly half white has an impact on the school’s culture, Sanchez said.
“It’s just really a matter of people being very ignorant about the impact that words have on people’s minds,” he said.
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