American University says racial ‘climate has to shift’ after hate crime

WASHINGTON — As campus and D.C. police, with the help of the FBI try to identify the person who hung bananas tied in string nooses on campus, American University is responding to student complaints the school has been slow to address racial problems on campus.

“As a community there’s a lot of pain right now,” said Robin Adams, AU’s assistant director for the Center for Community Engagement and Service, in a news conference organized by the university’s communications and marketing office. “All of this happened, unfortunately, at a time of high levels of stress, with finals, and I think that students have a right to voice their concerns and ask for action.”

On Monday, a student discovered bananas scrawled with short, racially-offensive messages hung from trees and lampposts.

On Tuesday, campus police released surveillance video of a person of interest shown walking alone on campus. On Wednesday, the FBI announced it was assisting in the investigation.

After this most recent racially-tinged display, some students have voiced displeasure at the university’s pace in addressing racial tensions, since similar incidents involving bananas happened last year.

Celine-Marie Pascale, an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, said students had the right to be angry, but systemic change doesn’t happen right away.

“The university is a bureaucracy, in which nothing happens very quickly,” said Pascale. “There is a climate that has to shift.”

As of Wednesday, the university said police had not identified the person seen in the video, which was recorded the evening the bananas were hung on campus.

While the identity and motivation of the person involved is yet to be determined, the administrators agreed students are being hurt by the most recent incident.

“I think it was a particularly cruel time for this hate crime to happen,” said Pascale. “I don’t know if it was strategic on the person’s part, classes were over and (students) were preparing for finals.”

Messages on the bananas included the letters AKA, apparently referring to Alpha Kappa Alpha, a predominantly black sorority. Another banana was labeled “Harambe bait,” a reference to the gorilla killed in a Cincinnati zoo last year, after a young child fell into its enclosure.

Taylor Dumpson, the first African-American woman to lead AU’s student government, is a member of AKA. The bananas were discovered the day Dumpson was to assume office.

“It would be sad on our parts to not hold them up in the light and say ‘despite what has happened, this is a great time for us, in terms of shifts and change,'” Adams said.

Asked why she believed someone would use the same racially-offensive symbol two years in a row, Adams guessed it was because the symbolism was easily understood: “How do I rattle folks? Particularly people of color, particularly African-Americans, and in this case a sorority, whose membership is African-American.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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