One Woman's Account of How Abuse, Corruption and Silence at Penn State Perpetuate a Poisonous Culture
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It’s hard to find reputable statistics about hate group numbers since many are inclined not to mention their membership when statisticians ask. But anyone who lives in the region – and pays attention – can attest to the open presence of hate group activity. This was particularly shocking to me, a product of suburban North Carolina, where racist institutions and stereotypes are far more common than actual hate groups campaigning on behalf of “white power.”
In North Carolina, the Confederate flag bumpersticker often suggests that the driver is an undereducated but nonviolent “heritage, not hate” type. But Civil War nostalgia is by no means a “heritage”-based element of white Pennsylvania culture. In Pennsylvania, it’s safe to bet anyone flying the Confederate flag is a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I spotted far more Confederate flags – dozens, at least – in and around “liberal” State College, PA than I had ever seen in my Southern-raised life.
The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 was particularly fraught in Central Pennsylvania. Though the Secret Service never confirmed that someone actually screamed, “Kill him!” at that Sarah Palin rally in Scranton, the Scranton Times-Tribune (which originally reported the incident) stands by the story today. In any case, the veracity of the report wouldn’t have been a shock to anyone who has lived in the region. I saw a skinhead contingent about a dozen strong waiting in line to be admitted into a Palin rally that year, white men unashamedly boasting white power and swastika tattoos. Acquaintances spoke about seeing open Klansmen and Aryan Nation members in the audience as well.
This was not a surprise to black students at Penn State, whose student associations received an onslaught of death threats in 2000 that culminated in the killing of a young black man. Long before this, in the 1980s, several black men were targeted in violent assaults in town.**
Students whispered to me of other disappearances in State College, as well. Indeed, when the Sandusky allegations became public, former PSU professor of African American studies Robyn Spencer published part of her journal from 2001 in an attempt to expose the long history of violence at the university. She wrote:
My concerns were as basic as survival. Hate mail, death threats, and sit-ins thrust this school into the national spotlight before the ink on my job contract had time to dry. Unclaimed black corpses were found in surrounding areas, student leaders were assigned bodyguards and attendees of graduation had to pass through metal detectors.
The university’s students of color know this history well, up to and including the fact that students whose lives were threatened received precious little support from the university administration or Joe Paterno – whose black players were specifically targeted As student activist Assata Richards told one reporter last year, “We asked him to talk to the players because we were concerned about their safety…and he said in that meeting that he would never do anything to put the university in a bad light. So we said, ‘Then you are choosing the university over students’ lives.’”
In 2008, a graduate student in another program told me that a black student group, fearing for the safety of its members, had advised students of color to stay home the day after Obama’s win. One of my students shared these concerns. Through tears, she spoke of a friend who found notes attached to her front door reading, “N****r, leave.” Some friends, she said, became too exhausted and fearful to stay, so they did leave.