Expectations to Explain the Unexplainable

Here is something that brings up the issue of how we discuss things.

I noticed two opinion pieces from the local University of Iowa newspaper, The Daily Iowan. They were about an alleged hate crime and the university’s response to it. Specifically, the complaints is that the university didn’t respond in a timely enough manner and that this is proof of the university not taking seriously the safety and concerns of black students.

The first opinion piece is by Marcus Brown. In the print version, it was titled “It’s Time To Talk About Race.” And the online title is “Always Too Little, Too Late.” The author writes that,

“A crime alert issued far too late and possibly as an attempt to stymie what will surely become a well-deserved fiasco is explanation enough of the university’s reluctance to actually address issues on campus with any sort of intentionality. […] The question I have is not what the university is going to do, but simply why is it going to do it. If the university cared about black students, it would have issued a Hawk Alert about a potential hate crime just as urgently as it would all other crimes that occur on campus that specify a potentially black suspect.”

What stood out to me is the perspective. I assume that Marcus Brown is a university student. Like many of the university students, he likely isn’t from the local area.

There are many students from other states and other countries. Most of the population of this town probably wasn’t born and raised in Iowa. It’s a town many people pass through on their way to bigger and better things.

As someone, who has lived here most of my life, off and on since elementary school, I have a different perspective. I’m a local yokel. But it doesn’t bother me to hear criticisms of the university. I have no particular loyalty to the university. I never attended the university. I only briefly worked for the university for a few months as a dishwasher and that was a long time ago.

I find it curious how a student sees things differently. To the above author, the university and the city are one and the same. They are conflated as a single entity. He describes where the attack happened and it was downtown in a public alley, not on campus. It’s strange that the university should be responsible for what crimes happen outside of campus, as the authority of university police is mostly limited to university property.

It is true that this was close to campus. But it makes me wonder if Mr. Brown assumes that anything that happens to a university student anywhere in Iowa City should be the responsibility of the university. The town is more than 25 square miles. The university is concentrated in one small area. Most university buildings are within a mile of most other university buildings.

I understand that it involved a university student and that automatically makes it a university concern on some basic level. Then again, things happen to university students all the time and rarely does the university involve itself. Aggressive people coming out of bars late at night is hardly an unusual situation. Fights and attacks happen on a regular basis. Yes, the victim claims that there were racial slurs.

Maybe the university should have put out an alert earlier. Officials stated that they were waiting for further information from the police to confirm what happened. I don’t know if that is a fair assessment or not. I just found it interesting that to some students this whole town seems like an extension of the university.

The other opinion piece is by Keith Reed. It has a simple and amusing title, “#Explain Iowa.” I’m sure he is another student and it seems he has a similar perspective to the other guy, as he also speaks of the ‘campus’:

“On [n]umerous campuses — it is a shame — this incident has happened many times. […] This has raised an essential question that has to be explored on every campus. Can the administration, in good conscience, provide a safe environment for these minorities? We need to change the taboo surrounding race on the UI campus, because we all know minorities are here. We have become pawns in a system that clearly cares about percentages than actual life cost. Your move Iowa, now it is time for you to explain this. #ExplainIowa.”

The problem is that it didn’t happen on campus. I don’t think that is a minor detail. Reed goes even further than Brown. University issues don’t just include all of the surrounding city. Somehow the entirety of Iowa is implicated. Anyway, who is ‘Iowa’. Does that mean each and every Iowan has to explain?

I get the sense that the author assumes all of Iowa is white and that the only minorities here are temporary residents such as students like him. According to the Iowa City census, more than 20% of the population is not “white alone.” This percentage is lower for the rest of the state, but other cities in Eastern Iowa have higher rates of minorities, as compared to rural areas. Most minorities in Iowa probably aren’t out-of-state college students.

Why is all of Iowa and presumably all Iowans responsible for explaining the behavior of a few drunk guys? Many people in Iowa City, as I explained, aren’t from around here. The city is right on I-80, a short jaunt from a number of big cities such as Chicago. People come to Iowa City sometimes just to go to the bars. We are a town well known for drinking.

As far as anyone knows, the guys who beat up on the student could be from almost anywhere. It’s not as if the attackers yelled something like, “This is Iowa and we’re real Iowans! Iowa is for white people! Go back where you came from!” They were just some guys who beat up another guy, likely all involved having been drinking at the bars. I have no reason to doubt that racial slurs were tossed out. After all, we live in a society that was founded on slavery and genocide. It’s going to take us a while to work out these issues, sadly.

Even if all of Iowa City or all of Iowa attempted to explain such incidents, how could that be accomplished? And what exactly would be accomplished? I have a hard enough explaining my own behavior. I don’t think I’m capable of explaining why violent assholes are the way they are. It would be like an Iraqi citizen writing an article directed at US citizens that had the title “#ExplainUnitedStates.” I wish I could explain everything that happens in the world, but I can’t. My white Iowan privilege doesn’t give me special privileged knowledge.

It’s strange how people talk about such things. Racism is an important issue. We do need to discuss it and try to come to terms with what it means and what we can do about it. For that reason, we should find helpful ways of framing issues and not generalize so broadly.

* * *

The sad ending to this incident is that it turns out the guy was lying and far from being an innocent victim. He had been drinking underage, had a disagreement with a fellow frat guy, started at least one fight in a bar and was involved in several other altercations. All of this was caught on video and there were eyewitnesses.

If I was an arrogantly righteous asshole, I’d say #ExplainBlackPeople. But I’d rather try to be understanding and forgiving. Besides, it would be as pointless to expect all black people to explain the actions of some black person as it would be to expect all white people to explain the actions of some white person.

Owens investigation turns up video surveillance but no hate crime
By Adam Burke, Little Village

Authorities: Assault near University of Iowa campus not hate crime

No charges against University of Iowa student Marcus Owens for fabricating hate crime
By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette

Despite lack of hate crime, UI re-evaluating police protocols
By Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa City Press Citizen

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