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At Syracuse, students rap what they see as a sluggish reaction to racist and anti-Semitic incidents

A sit-in at Syracuse University’s campus center lasted more than two weeks.
A sit-in at Syracuse University’s campus center lasted more than two weeks. Maranie Rae Staab/New York Times

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The racist graffiti was discovered one night this month on the sixth floor of a freshman dormitory at Syracuse University — an anti-black slur and the words “Little China Town” scrawled crudely in marker. The next day, similar messages were found on a fourth-floor bulletin board.

Although the campus had already experienced widely publicized racist incidents this year, university officials responded to the new ones mostly by being quiet and holding a private gathering with students who lived on the two floors. A residential staff member urged them not to speak out about what had happened, describing the gathering as a “family meeting.”

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The news spread quickly anyway, touching off two weeks of protests that electrified Syracuse and turned it into a resonant symbol of the alienation that many students of color feel at elite universities.

“They wanted to cover it up, which they have a long history of doing,” said Clarke Johnson, a black freshman.

Black, Latino, Asian American, Jewish, Muslim, indigenous and international students descended on Syracuse’s new $50 million campus center for a sit-in under the slogan #NotAgainSU. The students, armed with 19 demands, were angry about what they perceived as the administration’s sluggish reaction to the racist and anti-Semitic incidents.

The protests drew widespread support, including from the Syracuse College Republicans, who declared, “This campus needs reform.”

Last week, Syracuse’s chancellor, Kent D. Syverud, agreed to most of the demands, calming the protests, for now at least. The students left the campus center, 15 days after the racist graffiti was first discovered on the freshman dorm’s sixth floor.

On Monday, Syverud announced a series of measures to increase security on campus, including doubling the number of safety patrols.

Still, dozens of interviews with students, faculty members, and administrators indicated the sit-in had grown out of long-simmering tensions at a university that has often seemed to be pulled in two directions.

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For decades, Syracuse has aspired to be an enlightened model of tolerance, inclusion, and diversity. Administrators often note that the university expressed public support for Japanese Americans when they were being placed in internment camps in the 1940s, never excluded women, and rejected quotas for Jewish students when such practices were common.

But Syracuse also retains a strong fraternity and preprofessional culture that at times appears to have fostered antipathy to students of color on its central New York campus.

Founded in 1870, Syracuse has roughly 22,500 students, more than half of whom are white. About 6 percent are black, 8 percent are Hispanic, and 6 percent are Asian. One in five students comes from outside the United States.

Like many universities, Syracuse has resources for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, including administrative offices geared specifically to them. But students of color contend that what they call the administration’s halting response to the racist and anti-Semitic incidents this year revealed a hollow commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In the spring, some black students reported being attacked and targeted with slurs near the Syracuse campus. Others reported several instances of professors at a campus in Madrid using a racist slur. Then came the November incidents.

“This is the tipping point,” said Montinique McEachern, a black graduate student. “These protests have made people more aware of the climate that students of color have to go through. For a lot of students, this place is heaven. But for students of color, it’s been hell.”

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Syverud acted swiftly after a group of students, including members of a fraternity, yelled a racial slur at a black female student on Nov. 16. He suspended all social activities at fraternities until the end of the semester.

Even so, in the days after the #NotAgainSU slogan took hold and the sit-in began, there were more than a dozen other racist and anti-Semitic incidents, authorities said. Swastikas were etched into the snow outside an apartment building where students live and drawn in a dorm. Racial slurs appeared in a campus bathroom and in dorm stairwells.

Authorities have said that they have identified students involved in some of the incidents, but they have not publicized their names.

Authorities said they were still investigating one report that garnered widespread attention: that a racist manifesto had been sent to the phones of people at the university library. Despite initially deeming reports of the matter credible, officials said they had not confirmed that it happened.

The protesters’ 19 demands included that those involved in the November incidents be expelled, that steps be taken to diversify the faculty, that $1 million be spent on a mandatory curriculum addressing issues of diversity and racism, and, ultimately, that the chancellor and other senior university officials resign.

Syverud also came under fire from Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, who questioned the chancellor’s leadership and called for Syracuse’s trustees to hire an independent monitor to investigate the racial incidents.

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Syverud made it clear that neither he nor other top university officials would resign.

“I hate testifying for myself, but my whole career has been about caring about students, particularly about international students and students of color,” Syverud, who is white, said.

A lawyer by training, he said he had long fought for affirmative action in higher education based on race, and, with his Asian-American wife, had raised a mixed-race family in the South.

But he acknowledged that he had not done enough, and he expressed regret that the university had not responded sooner to some of the episodes.

“These last 10 days, I’ve talked to so many students and they’re so afraid and angry,” he said. “And I understand why.”

In interviews, Syracuse students, faculty members, alumni, and parents described a campus culture that made many students of color feel marginalized.

Caleb Obiagwu, a senior who was born in Nigeria and raised in London, said he was stunned when a white professor asked him how it was that he spoke English so well.

“I couldn’t believe I was being asked that by an educated person,” Obiagwu said.

At one dorm, several black students said they had heard white classmates using racial slurs so frequently that they started to just tune them out.

“It’s not if I’ll hear a white person yelling out [expletive] in the hallway,” said a black student who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal. “It’s when.”

Jonathan Chau, an Asian-American senior, recalled being ridiculed at a party by white classmates who used their fingers to slant their eyes: “That was my first party ever here as a freshman. It was mortifying.”

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The father of a male Jewish student said that his son had left Syracuse after being attacked by a classmate who called him anti-Semitic slurs and drew a swastika on his wall. “There is an inherent issue with the culture at that school,” the student’s father said.