This month, an Ohio jury awarded the owners of Gibson’s Food Mart and Bakery in Oberlin $44 million in combined punitive and compensatory damages in its defamation action against Oberlin College and a top university administrator. The incident at the heart of the lawsuit stems from a 2016 hate-crime hoax involving three black students, occurring the day after Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Gibson’s, owned and operated by the same family for over a century, has been a popular spot for Oberlin College students looking to buy groceries within walking distance of campus. Gibson’s also supplied the college dining hall with baked goods.
On November 9, 2016, Oberlin students Jonathan Aladin, Endia Lawrence, and Cecelia Whettstone fought with Allyn Gibson, the owner’s grandson, after he tried to apprehend Aladin for stealing alcohol. The students claimed that they had been racially profiled. Students, professors, and even some in the Oberlin administration launched a boycott of the bakery, including protests and pickets. The school cancelled its contracts with Gibson’s. But the allegations proved baseless: the students had in fact been caught stealing from the store, and they admitted as much when they pled guilty the following August.
Advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center make headlines by claiming that hate crimes have surged since Trump’s election, but the real surge is in hate-crime hoaxes, especially among university students. The day after the 2016 election, Eleesha Long, a student at Bowling Green State University—about 90 miles west of Oberlin—said that she was attacked by white Trump supporters, who threw rocks at her. Police concluded that she had fabricated the story. That same day, Kathy Mirah Tu, a University of Minnesota student, claimed in a viral social-media post that she was detained by police after fighting a racist man who had attacked her. Campus and local police said that they had had no contact with her. And again that day, a Muslim student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette made up a story about being attacked and robbed by Trump supporters, who supposedly ripped off her hijab. For weeks after Trump’s election, America was fed a series of outrageous stories of campus race hatred that fell apart upon examination.
This trend of student hate-crime hoaxes has continued. In May 2017, St. Olaf College in Minnesota was roiled in mass “anti-racism” protests that caused classes to be cancelled. Samantha Wells, a black student activist, was found to be responsible for a racist threat she left on her own car. In September of that year, five black students at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School found racial slurs written on their doors. An investigation later found that one of the students targeted was responsible for the vandalism.
In November 2018, students at Goucher College in Maryland demanded social-justice training and safe spaces after “I’m gonna kill all [n—s]” was discovered written in a dorm bathroom. Fynn Arthur, a black student, was responsible for the hoax. That same month, thousands of students at Drake University protested after racist notes turned up on campus. Kissie Ram, an Indian-American student, pled guilty for targeting herself and others in the hoax. And in May of this year, a student at the University of La Verne allegedly had a bag placed over her head while she was groped and had her head slammed into a dormitory stair railing. The student declined medical assistance, however. An outspoken activist in the campus “decolonize” movement, she reported other unsubstantiated hate crimes earlier this year, making one wonder if these incidents were hoaxes.
And there are dozens of other examples. They all point to a sickness in American society, with our institutions of higher education too often doubling as “hate-hoax mills,” encouraged by a bloated grievance industry in the form of diversity administrators.
At Oberlin College, in particular, this problem precedes the Trump era. In 2013, students at the elite liberal arts college panicked after someone reported seeing a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe on campus. The administration cancelled all classes for the day. The phantom klansman was never found, though police did find someone wrapped in a blanket. This overreaction was preceded by a month-long spate of racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay posters around campus. These, too, were found to be hoaxes.
With their preoccupation with identity, privilege, and oppression, our institutions of higher education increasingly promote a paranoid climate of perpetual crisis. Is it surprising, then, that participants in this hothouse environment would respond to an incentive structure that rewards victimhood by manufacturing it?