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English professor creates group to challenge spike in hate crimes

Naishi Jhaveri | Hatchet Staff Photographer
Naishi Jhaveri | Hatchet Staff Photographer

An English professor is taking a stand against what he calls a normalization of hatred.

Jeffrey Cohen, a professor of English, created a group called Writers Artists Thinkers Challenge Hate with about 20 of his Facebook friends – who are mostly academics and artists – from around the world to challenge hate. Cohen’s goal echoes messages from officials, schools and departments around GW that have issued statements over the past two weeks reaffirming their commitment to stand against discriminatory actions in the wake of this month’s election results.

President-elect Donald Trump’s victory earlier this month has been pegged as the cause for many of these acts, like racist messages being sent to black freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania and the robbery of a Muslim student at San Diego State University. Trump’s campaign has been considered one of the most divisive in recent history, and many of his supporters have also been blamed for an increase in intolerance and a spike in racist attacks since his election.

Cohen said he and his friends created the group – which is open to anyone – in response to the increase in hate crimes following the election. He said he and colleagues on social media were frustrated and concerned by students and fellow faculty members’ comments, which spurred them to found the group. Five days after its launch, the group totals about 370 members.

“Rather than become despondent, which it is kind of easy to do, we wanted to brainstorm ways to be more positively engaged in bringing about change and actually bringing about safety and refuge for our students and colleagues who need it,” Cohen said.

He said he was particularly motivated to create the group when swastikas were drawn on the walls in his daughter’s middle school. Cohen is worried that as these kinds of incidents become daily occurrences, people won’t be as outraged as they should be, he said.

The group has focused on finding ways to challenge hateful rhetoric, he said. He said it has been helpful to share “statements of affirmation” – messages confirming an institution’s or academic department’s commitment to diversity and tolerance – in the group to help encourage people at other universities to pen their own.

“We feel like in these troubled times, it’s too easy to get into a reactive mode where you’re condemning things after they happened rather than affirming the kind of community that you’re interested in fostering and putting into place,” Cohen said.

The English department issued a statement on the department’s blog last week asserting the its commitment to diversity and critical thought. Cohen said the statement was crafted to show students what the department’s values are, not to make a political statement.

Several officials have issued similar statements. University President Steven Knapp and Provost Forrest Maltzman both addressed students’ post-election concerns at this month’s Faculty Senate meeting and said they would continue to celebrate diversity and urged civility among students.

Ben Vinson, the dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Reuben Brigety, the dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs, and Sanjit Sethi, the director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, also issued statements reaffirming their commitments to inclusion.

“We, as an institution, aspire to cultivate minds and provide the world with individuals who are ready to tackle the toughest questions, to wrestle with the ethics of what tomorrow may bring and to unknotting the challenges that plague us,” Vinson said in his statement.

Academic departments and programs, including those for history, organizational sciences and communication, American Studies, Spanish and University Writing, have issued their own statements with similar themes.

Katrin Schultheiss, the chair of the history department, said her department decided to issue its statement to students after faculty expressed concerns about harassment on other campuses. Faculty members wanted to make clear to students that the department supports the University’s diversity and inclusion mission.

“That’s not just words that we throw out there because they look good, but values and principles that we think are absolutely essential to carrying out the mission of the University,” she said. “And if we don’t articulate them and stand by them when they’re under fire, then they are meaningless.”

Schultheiss said she wanted to make it clear that the department also wasn’t taking a political stance, but rather standing up for diversity and inclusion as essential parts of the learning environment at GW – a topic she said isn’t partisan.

“Those of us who have relatively secure positions, I think have an obligation be there for those who are in more vulnerable positions,” she said. “And so I think it’s really important that we recognize that and not be scared out of some sense of decorum or some false idea of what neutrality means to not act when we need to act.”

Elisabeth Anker, an associate professor of American studies, said she has spent a lot of time over the past two weeks supporting students who are feeling vulnerable in the aftermath of the election. She said part of a professor’s job is to make sure classrooms are safe places for students to learn.

Anker has participated in several protests and vigils on or near campus since the election, including a march alongside 400 others to the White House and to deliver a list of demands to administrators aimed at supporting marginalized students.

“When we see the changes in policies that really seem to go against our general American values of freedom, equality, justice and democracy, I think as citizens, it’s our job to stand up to that, regardless of political party,” she said.

Rachel Riedner, the executive director of the University Writing Program, said in an email that the statement her program issued demonstrates a commitment to providing safety to groups who could be targeted.

Their statement, which was unanimously approved by faculty at a meeting last week, reaffirms a statement Knapp issued the day after the election, reminding students of the program’s commitment to celebrating diversity and maintaining civility.

“In the statement, we are not responding to a particular political decision nor are we aligning ourselves with a particular party or figure,” she said. “Academic learning and scholarship cannot take place in the absence of a sense of personal safety and an evident commitment to civil discourse.”

Catherine Moran contributed reporting.

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