I’ve been watching as Penn State begins to implode. While I find it kind of sad, I’m also saddened that I also think its downfall was inevitable. You see, I attended graduate school there. I lived in State College for about 6 years, so I learned firsthand about the dirty underbelly that is State College.
In fact, I can say that I “went to grad school while brown.” You haven’t heard of this one before? Well, let me tell you, it is hard to be non-white while living in small town central PA. I saw how often PSU buried the dirty and ugly parts that might ruin its reputation as a great school. Little did I know that the place enforced a set of racial, sexual, and cultural rules all its own.
This became obvious with the arrest of Jerry Sandusky, a revered local and employee of PSU who raped and molested underage boys for years all while Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier and others knew and worked hard to cover up Sandusky’s crimes.
However, this isn’t the only crime that Penn State has kept under wraps. In 2001, my last year at the school, many black students began receiving hate mail and found nooses on their dorm room doors. Eventually, these acts of terrorism escalated to death threats. Still, no one paid attention to the students whose lives were turned upside down. They didn’t even pay attention to the threat that the school would soon find a dead black body as proof of their intent. Then, when the police did find the dead body of a black man near PSU, the FBI got involved, the students staged a sit-in, and only then did the school finally listen and take the threats seriously. You can read more about it here.
The FBI issued LaKeisha Wolf a bullet-proof vest, because she was the recipient of a Nittany lions’ share of the death threats. Wolf was an undergraduate, the president of the Black Caucus, yet, during that time, she lived each day as if it might be her last. But the university wouldn’t let this tarnish their image in the same way that they couldn’t let Sandusky’s crimes ruin PSU’s image as a beacon of the community, a place that employed many locals and brought in many out-of-town dollars during football season. How many people are even aware of these acts of terrorism that took place at Penn State in 2001? I half expected news reports about Sandusky to refer to these events, but I guess the school did such a good job at covering them up that they are only remembered by people like me who were there to witness the events. Raymond Winbush, Ph.D. has written about racism and the covered up events at Penn State in “Back to the Future: Campus Racism in the 20th Century.”
What school ever wants to see itself as a harbinger of racism? Most conservatives lambast universities as bastions of liberalism that indoctrinate students with feminism, ethnic studies, and the like. Yet, many of these “bastions of liberalism” are filled with racism, sexism, homophobia, and a distaste for diversity. I came from Salt Lake City, Utah, to PA and even I was shocked at how “small” and insulated State College really was. When I began teaching, I was shocked when I learned that most of my students had never seen a person of color except in the movies or on television. Most of the white students who came from the surrounding counties thought that the town of State College with its local population of 40,000 people was a metropolis! I felt so sorry for these kids. How awful it must be to have lived such an insulated life, but they didn’t know what they were missing.
Another cover up that took place was Penn State’s order to desegregate. In 1981, the United States Department of Education ordered Pennsylvania to submit a state-wide desegregation plan for all of its universities. It is the only non-southern school that was part of this decree. In fact, people I knew referred to the area as “Pennsyltucky.” State College sits at the northern-most end of the Appalachians, and its culture fits in with that of the south in many ways. Most of the students of color knew about the order to desegregate, but most of the white students didn’t believe it or were in shock when they heard about it.
Penn State’s and State College’s culture of covering up what it doesn’t like might explain why I regularly heard about the beatings that Latino students would receive each weekend when drunk white male students heard them speaking Spanish. Apparently, white male students inebriation let their racist tendencies come out in fists and punches and shouts of “Speak English!” This culture of covering up might also explain why many of the white students were afraid of the black and brown students who suddenly “surroundeded” them in the “bit city” of State College. Can we really expect students who grow up around people who all look the same to be open-minded when finally confronted with diversity? It might also explain why binge drinking was such a problem when I was there. Should we really expect students who grew up in more religious and conservative homes to not drink once they moved away from their parents who looked over their shoulders their whole life?
We can learn a lot from Penn State’s attempts to cover up its very white underberlly. Racism and abuse does not disappear just because you don’t talk about it. In fact, silence only encourages acts of hatred to continue.