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College racial pranks reflect adult ugliness

At UC Davis in February, a swastika was carved on the door of a Jewish student’s quarters.

Earlier this month, a KKK-style hood was found on the UC San Diego campus, touching off student protests at several UC campuses. It was one of three such racially charged incidents associated with the campus in recent weeks that also included an off-campus party dubbed the Compton Cookout, which “mocked Black History Month,” according to a report in the Associated Press.

It’s not the first time — nor will it likely be the last — that acts of hatred and insensitivity pop up on college campuses in California or at other institutions of higher learning across the nation. Lest we forget, it happened at Cal Poly when students last year displayed a Confederate flag and noose at the Crops House.

Yet, I was still saddened and disappointed — perhaps naively so — by this offensive behavior.

American youth are supposed to be the most progressive in history, a group that has wrapped its brain around a post-racial society, where skin color and ethnicity no longer matter.

Many have grown up in a considerably different environment than even I did as a Generation Xer. They often arrive at the university after years of learning about other cultures, sitting side by side in the classroom, playing on the same sports teams and dancing at the same parties with students who may not look like them or share their same customs or traditions.

When they set foot on campus, many have the added benefit of enrolling in ethnic studies courses or being involved in activities that promote diversity, although I believe that campuses often fall short of reinforcing messages of tolerance.

But clearly, there continues to be a disconnect among our young people, and I find it hard to believe that it can be chalked up to sheer ignorance or immaturity on the part of the perpetrators.

Perhaps the events of last week provide a clue.

Demonstrators at the U.S. Capitol hurled racial epithets at Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. At one point, the n-word was used, an obscenity all too familiar to Lewis, who nearly lost his life demonstrating during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

Tea Party protesters also targeted Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay member of Congress. Other leaders and their families were not spared insults, vandalism or threats of violence in the days following the signing of the health care reform bill into law. It was enough that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on leaders to reject such behavior, saying it has “no place in a civil debate in our country.”

Some leaders in the Tea Party movement and Republican Party have also renounced the threats. I hope that more leaders continue to speak out in an effort to stop the insanity.

Apologies and repudiations aside, we must ask ourselves what messages we’re sending to those looking to us for leadership when, in 2010, adults cannot engage in civil discourse. I am all for the right to free speech, but not when it deteriorates into a kind of ugliness that, if it remains unchecked and unchallenged, could further divide our nation.

Initially, I pondered why the racial incidents on college campuses were happening now. But it didn’t take long for me to arrive at a conclusion. We’re setting the example.

If we want to understand why our children are lashing out with such venom, sometimes we only have to look in the mirror.