Tasteless, But Not Racist

Oct 302005
Authors: Ben Bleckley

A pamphlet distributed by the Collegiate Farm Bureau was condemned by CSU President Larry Penley last week for carrying what could be considered a racist image.

The agricultural club was promoting a discussion on referendums C and D. The pamphlet carried a picture of a figure hanging from a tree with the title "Does CSU's Future Hang on Referendums C and D?"

The Bureau apologized Tuesday.

"We are truly sorry for any offense that was taken. We have no intention of offending anybody," said Melanie Calderwood, public relations manager for the Collegiate Farm Bureau in an October 25th Collegian article.

My first assignment as a reporter for The Collegian over two years ago was the diversity beat. I learned a great deal under that assignment. African-Americans especially are still discriminated against in our society, evident in something as simple as the selection of hair products at the local supermarket.

And, as President Penley emphasized in his letter to the community on October 24th, lynching represents a horrific time period in United States history.

However, the pamphlet distributed by the Collegiate Farm Bureau, while certainly tasteless in its title illustration, is not a piece of racist propaganda. University administration is overreacting to the issue.

While President Penley's e-mail describes the image as a "black figure hanging from a tree," it is an outline of a figure, not a figure of a particular ethnicity.

Brad Bohlander, a university spokesman, said that the president did not intend for "black" to be taken as an ethnic description.

However, it is how I took it, and others at the university may have as well.

Colorado State Senator Steve Johnson certainly did. When he read the e-mail from Penley he was genuinely concerned. That changed when he saw the brochure on television the next day.

"When I saw what the brochure was, I thought, 'that's not a black person hanging from a tree at all,'" Johnson said.

For those who did find the image offensive, one must be completely understanding of their viewpoint.

"It's intimidating for (some students)," Bohlander said. "And we have to morally and legally create an environment where people aren't intimidated. It doesn't offend everybody, but it is offensive to a lot of people."

Johnson disagrees.

"You don't have the right not to be offended when you go to an institution of higher education," Johnson said. "You certainly have the right not to be discriminated against; you certainly have the right not to have racist propaganda or racist literature distributed on campus. This was none of those."

Numerous Denver newspapers and television news agencies suggested that Dana Hoag, the advisor for the group, has been asked by university administration not to discuss this story. Hoag would not go on the record for this column.

Bohlander denied that the administration told Hoag not to speak, although he said it was possible someone outside of the president's office said he had.

Open dialogue between all parties concerned would bring the most appropriate and effective closure to the issue. The university should not take action against Hoag or the Collegiate Farm Bureau.

"I hope that the student group involved did not intend to cause such offense in its efforts to promote what was otherwise a worthwhile program on state issues. However, any lack of intent does not diminish the harm that such an incident may cause," Penley said in his e-mail.

But lack of intent should protect university employees and student organizations from punishment and retribution.

"Not only did the president over react, but I think he's hurting innocent people by his overreaction," Johnson said.

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