November 28, 2021

SUNY students report racist taunts in election’s wake

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

SUNY Cortland senior Dalton T. Nyumah, 21, of Syracuse, left, and junior Shai’an Irving, 20, from Brooklyn, discuss their experiences with racism on campus Monday.

SUNY Cortland is investigating two incidents of post-election minority baiting, even as the state pursues hate crimes investigations elsewhere in New York.

SUNY Cortland President Erick Bitterbaum met with minority students who contacted him following the election and rumors that a carload of people yelled racial slurs at students the morning after Donald J. Trump won election to the presidency.

“This is coming from the students themselves,” said college spokesman Fred Pierce. “They have concerns. More than that, they have fears.”

SUNY investigators have yet to confirm the incident, Pierce said, but even the possibility remains troubling.

No confirmation was necessary for the graffiti found in an academic building later in the week. Pierce would not describe its content, but said it did not make specific threats and therefore did not rise to the level of a hate crime.

It doesn’t need to.

“The tension is still there,” said senior Dalton T. Nyumah of Syracuse as he walked down Prospect Terrace at the college. “People feel like they have a free pass to do stuff.”

“We have a lot of students of color, nontraditional gender types, who are Muslim, who really feel unsafe in the wake of this election,” Pierce said. “We promise to students and their parents that they’re safe and they’re respected.”

What is a hate crime?

New York Penal Law Article 485 says a hate crime must target a victim — which can be a person, a group or property — because of a perception about race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, age disability or sexual orientation and the act is committed because of that belief.

The law defines a number of specific offenses — menacing, assault, endangerment, criminal mischief and harassment among them — and increases penalties upon conviction.

It’s a sentiment Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to convey following incidents elsewhere in the state. He ordered joint investigations into an apparent hate crime in Wellsville and at SUNY Geneseo.

“New York has zero tolerance for bigotry, fear and hatred, and those who seek to undermine the core values this state and nation were founded upon,” Cuomo said after detailing the Wellsville incident, where a softball field dugout was spray-painted with a swastika and the words “Make America White Again.”

“To those who think they can intimidate our fellow New Yorkers through racism or anti-Semitism, I have one message: Don’t count on it,” Cuomo said after a resident assistant found a swastika and the word “Trump” at a SUNY Geneseo residence hall. “To any New Yorker who is scared, I want you to know that we have your back, that we will keep you safe, and that protecting your rights is what America stands for.”

While the state is investigating those two incidents as hate crimes, rumors of others are percolating through the state, said Nyumah and his friend, junior Shai’an Irving of Brooklyn. One friend talked about racial slurs hurled in Buffalo; another talked about attitudes in Oswego. Accurate or apocraphyl, the rumors reflect fear.

“I’ve never experienced anything racial to me — here,” said Armani Prosper, a sophomore from North Babylon. Truth be told, he’s not even very political, but he’s sympathetic.

“You’ve got to put yourself in their shoes,” he said. “They feel pain; they feel emptiness inside.

“There’s still racism,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”

“We’re assuming it’s out there,” Pierce said, regardless of whether a specific incident of taunting and jeers is ever confirmed. “We want our students to know we don’t tolerate any speech like that.”

The college, he said, will continue conversations with its assorted minority populations — which constitute an increasing share of the student population. Ten years ago, racial and ethnic minorities were 4 percent of the student population; today’s they’re 17 percent. The college doesn’t keep data on sexual orientation or religion, so figure the share of students feeling threatened is greater still.

“I don’t know if there’s much he (Bitterbaum) can do about it,” Nyumah said. “It’s like a simmer; people are still processing it. I’m on guard 24/7.”