Panel looks at racial history, legal process behind hate crime

Thursday, February 17, 2011 | 7:18 p.m. CST; updated 11:34 a.m. CST, Friday, February 18, 2011
MU associate professor of law Paul Litton, left, and MU associate professor of law S. David Mitchell spoke at a Difficult Dialogues session on Thursday. Mitchell spent a lot of time discussing who the victims were of the racial slur graffiti that was spray painted on a sculpture in front of Hatch Hall on Saturday.

COLUMBIA — Associate law professor David Mitchell says the racial slur written on a statue outside Hatch Hall struck a nerve because it reminded him of a history loaded with racial oppression.

"Incidences such as these catapult a sense of non-belonging to the fore in the most visceral and overt way possible, with a slur that was created to dehumanize our entire race," Mitchell said Thursday in a prepared statement. He said people should feel safe in their homes, and the racial slur took away that sense of safety for students.

Saturday morning, a racial slur for African-Americans referring to Black History Month was spray-painted on a sculpture outside the residence hall. MU student Benjamin Elliott was arrested after surveillance cameras showed him spray-painting the sculpture and sidewalk.

In response, four law school professors came together for a panel discussion about the legal issues surrounding the definition and punishment of hate crimes. They also discussed the racial history of Boone County and how dialogue can reduce racial divisions. The panel was sponsored by the MU Law School and the MU Difficult Dialogues program.

"I don’t think any of us can make sense of a senseless act like what happened on Saturday, but we can at least explain the legal aspects that may be relevant to this," said Larry Dessem, the Law School dean who helped organize the panel.

The legal discussion focused on the degree to which hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.

Law professor Christina Wells, who co-authored a book on the First Amendment, said there is not a consensus on how to define and punish hate crimes. She said some people believe hate crimes should be treated as vandalism, while others believe hate crimes are not protected because they threaten and intimidate people.

"I wonder if legal responses aren't the best way to deal with this," Wells said. "Maybe it's better to start a dialogue about this."

Law professor Frank Bowman presented the racial history of Boone County and said some of the racial divisions continue to this today. He said Columbia is still relatively segregated and cited his experience driving behind a school bus Thursday morning in a public housing neighborhood.

"There was scarcely a white face in the group," Bowman said. "Columbia remains a community with deep divisions along racial lines."

Bowman said Boone County was one of the six largest slave-holding counties in Missouri. He said many of the famous people in Columbia's history — including the "father" of MU, James S. Rollins, and Missouri Statesman owner William Switzler — were slave owners.

Toward the end of the panel, audience member and doctoral student Marlo Goldstein Hode asked what the MU community can do about buildings and streets on campus that  are symbols of slavery.

"I felt so embarrassed of my ignorance that buildings where I teach and learn are named after slave owners," Goldstein Hode said.

The group also discussed the possibility of a diversity course requirement, which the MU Faculty Council is considering. Mitchell said a diversity course could encourage deeper discussions but would not be a perfect solution because "you don't learn it by reading a textbook."

Wells said the diversity courses must be taught in a way that makes students that they're being told what to think but rather have the chance to engage in a discussion.

“I think this is just the beginning," Mitchell said after the panel discussion. "The university is taking steps to address this issue. I think the diversity course is a solution but not the ultimate solution."

Missourian reporter Michael Davis contributed to this report.

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