Arts & Entertainment
Print storySubscribe to the Times

An education in hate

After a professor's car is vandalized, a college community finally seems to awaken to its own intolerance. Then came something uglier than the crime itself.

Published June 6, 2004

[AP photos]
Catie Powell, left, and Emily Burns chant during a student rally March 10 at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. About 2,000 students and faculty at the Claremont consortium of colleges gathered to protest an apparent hate crime in which a professor’s car was vandalized and painted with racial slurs.

Professor Kerri Dunn speaks during a rally.
Kerri Dunn steps out of her front door in Redlands, Calif., on March 17 after she was named as the suspect in an alleged hate crime in which her car was vandalized.
Students and faculty gather at the March 10 rally. Meanwhile, the alleged vandalism case of professor Kerri Dunn had already begun to unravel.

CLAREMONT, Calif. - It all started with a burning cross.

Four students stole a piece of sculpture one Friday night during winter break and set the thing on fire. Eleven feet tall, made of metal tubing and covered in cloth, it went up quickly.

This touched off one of the most racially polarized periods the five small Claremont colleges - Pomona, Claremont McKenna, Scripps, Pitzer and Harvey Mudd - had experienced since violent civil rights protests in 1969. Yet everything seemed confused. People couldn't even agree the cross burning was racially motivated.

It only got murkier as the semester wore on.

A social club drew flak for asking its members to get a picture of themselves with 10 Asians as part of a sophomoric scavenger hunt.

Not long after came reports of antigay graffiti in some bathrooms.

At the end of February, someone defaced a calendar in one of the dormitories. "N---" had been scrawled in green ink over a picture of George Washington Carver.

Those who were already angry got angrier. Indifference abounded, too. Was this a pattern of racism, or just an assortment of collegiate stupidity?

On the evening of March 9, something happened that seemed to leave no doubt about intent.

A white female professor who had earlier spoken at a public forum about hate crimes returned to her old Honda Civic to find it had been vandalized.

The tires had been slashed, the windows smashed and an extravagant variety of slurs had been spray-painted over the car - Kike Whore, N--- Lover, Bitch and Shut Up. There was even a botched swastika.

Outrage swept the students, faculty and administrators. Classes were canceled the next day, something that hadn't been done on Sept. 11. A $10,000 reward was posted.

Within a week the police investigation was done.

The professor, they said, had vandalized her own car.

* * *

What happened at the Claremont colleges these past few months is emblematic of our national confusion on the subject of race and prejudice.

Once, racism was something raw and incontrovertible. Snarling police dogs, fire hoses, a girl's shoe in the rubble of a bombed church.

Fifty years after the beginning of the civil rights era, we keep scrupulous statistics about hate crimes, yet more than ever we seem bedeviled by questions of what is real and what is fake. Remember the noose found hanging in the tree at the University of South Florida in February? Was it a symbol of lynchings past or just a piece of knotted rope?

In 2002, the last year for which statistics are available, the FBI's survey of law enforcement agencies around the country counted 7,462 hate crimes, a little more than 10 percent of which occurred on school campuses. Estimates put the number of hoaxes at several dozen a year.

In Florida, the FBI counted 301 hate offenses, the ninth-highest in the nation. California was highest with 1,931. Accurate numbers for hoaxes in each state are not available.

Perhaps hoax stories interest us just for their novelty. But maybe they comfort us, too, by suggesting that prejudice doesn't really exist, that it's just a political ploy to gin up sympathy for affirmative action. But the numbers suggest the problem is real, at least in the world outside college campuses (and some experts think the crimes are underreported by half). Why then do we look at the same events and draw such different conclusions?

* * *

The Claremont campuses fit together like tidy puzzle pieces. This interlocking geography mirrors the schools' educational missions; students routinely register for courses on other campuses. When classes are in session, the well-manicured paths between the schools are filled with kids in shorts and T-shirts pushing skateboards or ambling along leafy avenues that seem far removed from nearby Los Angeles.

But during winter break the campuses were mostly deserted, so two days passed before maintenance workers noticed the faintly charred metal skeleton of a once brightly colored sculpture.

Several days later, four students - two from Harvey Mudd, one from Scripps (the women's school) and one from Claremont McKenna - turned themselves in to their deans. The students insisted they had torched the sculpture out of boredom late the previous Friday night. It's a Harvey Mudd tradition to burn things, they explained.

"In no way was this meant to be a political act," one of the students wrote later in a letter of apology. "It was not meant to harm or offend anyone."

The disciplinary machinery was well under way when the rest of the student body returned from vacation. But no one had bothered to tell the students what had happened or how it was being handled. Rumors flourished in the vacuum.

A week into the semester, the president of Scripps College, Nancy Bekavac, issued this statement:

"(The students) did not appear to understand . . . the awful precedent of cross burning used for generations by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate African-Americans and others."

In other words, they were too ignorant to hate.

"Do you know what's scary?" Hughes Suffren, dean of the Office of Black Student Affairs, said in February, according to the Claremont Courier. "What's scary is that Claremont students are supposed to be the most intelligent young minds in the world. The global leaders of the future. You're telling me a future global leader doesn't know the symbolic significance of burning a cross?"

Suffren was not exaggerating.

Pomona, the oldest of the five schools, was ranked the country's fourth-best liberal arts college in the latest U.S. News survey. Claremont McKenna was not far behind in 12th. Eighty-two percent of Claremont McKenna freshmen graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

As the furor mounted, the colleges' presidents scheduled a forum on cross burnings. "That's what we do here," Claremont McKenna president Pamela Gann said. "We educate."

The forum, she said, "was not well-attended."

* * *

Not everyone was so indifferent.

A cadre of 11 students at Pomona were angered by what they called the administration's haphazard and insensitive response to the cross burning. They called themselves SLAM: Student Liberation Action Movement.

One of the SLAM founders was Christina Elmore, a senior whose thesis applying transnational feminist theory to the impact of U.S. "imperialism" on Palestinians says a lot about her view of the world.

When Elmore discovered that a dean she worked with had known of the cross burning but had not told anyone, she told him to his face he should resign.

"His white privilege allowed him not to have the visceral reaction that this is an absolutely urgent situation," she said later.

They asked for the expulsion of the students involved in the cross burning. "We felt they were a threat to our community," Elmore said. (The students were placed on probation.)

SLAM demanded the creation of departments in "Queer Studies" and "Native-American studies." The group called for more minority recruitment and funding for a publication of "marginalized voices."

All this agitating only drew derision from people such as Charles Rice, the editor of the Claremont Independent, a conservative student newspaper.

"I think it was just people getting so desperate to have something to combat that they blew it out of proportion," Rice said of the cross burning. "People have this idealized notion of 1960s student radicalism: what they were able to do against "the Man.' There is nothing left to fight."

Rice, a sophomore, came to Claremont McKenna from a Massachusetts prep school hoping for "four years not to have to deal with liberal dogma."

He devoted large portions of the Independent to debunking the racial component of the cross-burning incident. But as he was fighting the problem of "passion subverting reason," as he put it, incidents of prejudice continued to occur.

None was as dramatic as an 11-foot cross in flames, which permitted Rice to dismiss them as inconsequential and random. But for people such as Elmore, each new incident - the antigay graffiti, the treasure hunt for the photo of the 10 Asians - only confirmed a pattern of intolerance.

Elmore didn't need another example. But on Feb. 29, someone wrote "N---" on a calendar in a Claremont McKenna dormitory.

* * *

In the five years that she has been president of Claremont McKenna, Gann said, "I have never heard of or seen a racial epithet appear."

Before coming to Claremont McKenna, Gann had run the Duke University law school. She is a lawyer herself, a specialist in international trade and taxation. She has the slight, fit build of a distance runner and a mind that prefers precise distinctions to generalizations.

"I don't call it a cross burning. I call it burning a piece of outdoor sculpture that was in the shape of a cross," Gann said. To call it a cross burning, she said, makes it sound like a Ku Klux Klan rally.

Gann might sound sympathetic to conservatives on campus, but she was not a favorite of theirs. For the past two years she has been pushing to diversify the faculty and student body and to beef up departments that for decades had lived in the shadow of the famously conservative economics and government departments.

Nevertheless, Gann was determined that her school more closely resemble the society around it. While 30 percent of the student body identifies itself as minority, Gann said, the number of African-American undergraduates (4 percent of the 1,052 students) is far lower than that of schools such as Duke.

Moreover, the equally small number of minority professors makes recruiting qualified minorities much harder. The school had two minority faculty members in 1990 and it still had two when a report on diversity was done 12 years later. (Gann has hired two tenure-track minority professors for 2005, she said.)

In early March, Gann asked her faculty to talk with their students about the differences between the cross burning and the calendar. One was vandalism, she said, not an intentionally racist act. The other, while offensive, did not target a specific student, so therefore was not a hate crime.

One professor didn't get the message.

* * *

As she walked into her classroom March 8, with tennis courts visible out the window and the ROTC office across the hall, visiting assistant professor Kerri Dunn had something on her mind other than the workings of the central nervous system.

Students in her introduction to psychology course settled into their seats and pulled textbooks from their backpacks. Dunn, 39, didn't touch hers.

She wanted to know why her students weren't outraged by the defacement of the calendar.

"These are your friends who are being attacked," she said.

Dunn speaks in the vernacular of a Valley Girl, but she has a law degree to go with her Ph.D. in psychology. That afternoon, the class squirmed as Dunn built up steam, sprinkling her lecture with profanity.

"She said she wanted a discussion," freshman Aaron Simkin, 18, said. "But it wasn't really a discussion. She said, "You can go against me if you want, but be prepared to get yelled at."'

She made them watch an excerpt from an Oprah episode about an all-white county that refused to let blacks live there. Dunn challenged the students' notions of a color-blind society.

She said she was "fantasizing about students holding protests or rallies." One of her students thought the word "fantasizing" sounded odd.

* * *

Dunn normally had no classes on Tuesdays. On March 9, she drove to campus anyway from her home in Redlands, an orderly suburb 30 miles east of Claremont known for its Orange Muffin Festival.

Midafternoon, Dunn pulled into a parking lot that sits on the north end of the Pomona campus where it borders Claremont McKenna.

Her first stop was the Athenaeum, the auditorium on the Claremont McKenna campus where the college hosts speakers as varied as Spike Lee and Newt Gingrich. On short notice, a forum had been put together called "Free Speech vs. Hate Speech: What are the historical, psychological and legal differences?"

Dunn was not on the panel, but president Gann remembers that "she spoke fervently" from the audience. "Hate needs to go back underground where it belongs," Dunn said.

Several hours later, having stopped off, Dunn said, to work at her office, she returned to her car. It was after dark, but the glass from her shattered window glinted on the macadam.

"I guess I was shocked," Dunn said in an interview with the Student Life newspaper. "I kept wondering: "What did I do to make this happen?"'

Police were summoned and word spread quickly around the campuses, helped by a barrage of phone calls made by SLAM's leaders. Dozens of students gravitated to the parking lot.

Lori DesRochers, a news editor for the Student Life who came to help report the story, felt profoundly disturbed by the vandalism. It was evident other students shared her shock. They hugged and cried in each other's arms, she recalled.

But DesRochers noticed, too, "This was the first time a whole bunch of white students showed up" - white students who hadn't seemed to care too much about previous incidents.

In the midst of it all, Dunn was surrounded by several students. "She seemed extremely calm," DesRochers said, "which surprised me."

Indeed, Dunn appeared to have already thought through the impact of the attack.

"The issue is now going to be in the consciousness of people who teach here," Dunn said in the Student Life. "People are getting it. They are coming together, they reject hate and they want diversity."

President Gann issued a statement explaining why she was canceling classes the next day.

"A hate crime such as this one is the greatest imaginable affront to everything we stand for," she wrote. "We cannot possibly carry on as a teaching and learning community if persons physically threaten property and person in a way that leaves no doubt it was in response to speech."

* * *

The next evening, hundreds of students massed on a spotlighted field at Claremont McKenna, only a couple of hundred yards from where Dunn's car had been vandalized. Dressed primarily in black, groups from each college arrived at the field from different directions, all choreographed by the organizers.

By far the longest speech was made by Dunn, who appeared unexpectedly at the end of the rally.

"I can't tell you how it makes me feel to look out into a sea of you and know that you are here to support me and rather the larger issues of civil rights and equality for me, women, people of color, people of sexual orientations, et cetera."

Not exactly "I Have a Dream," but the crowd applauded anyway.

While Dunn basked in the attention, though, she was sowing seeds of suspicion among her students.

The vandal had called her "kike." But who else knew that she was thinking of converting from Catholicism to Judaism? And who else knew what car she drove?

"We thought it had to have been someone in her class," Aaron Simkin says. "That wasn't a good feeling."

* * *

Unbeknownst to the crowd at the rally, Dunn's story had begun to unravel before she stepped to the microphone.

There were inconsistencies in her account that troubled police and the FBI, which had been called in to handle the possible civil rights violation.

In her first statements Tuesday night, Dunn reported that $1,700 of personal property, including a CD player and a briefcase, was stolen from the car. Later, she said she found the items at home. This didn't prevent her from filing an insurance claim, according to authorities.

Most damning were the statements of two people, friends of a Claremont student, who came forward Wednesday morning to say they had information.

They had been sitting in their own car, they said, when they saw Dunn drive into the lot.

The car was already covered in graffiti, they said. Then they watched as Dunn attacked her own car. When she was done she approached them to ask if they had seen anything.

"I was thinking to myself, "Yeah, we just saw you pop your tires,"' said one of the witnesses, whose name has been withheld by police. (The full contents of the police report are not public record, so further details about the witness statements, such as when they saw Dunn drive into the lot, are not available.)

"This is like a very big deal if they think I'm a suspect," Dunn told the Los Angeles Times. "I didn't want any of this from the beginning. This is so overshadowing the bigger problem on campus, which is that the administration has turned its head regularly on hate speech and hate crimes."

Dunn was the story now, not alleged racism on campus. Reporters traced Dunn's roots to the University of Nebraska, where she had gone to college. They discovered court files showing she had a record for shoplifting. That didn't prove she vandalized her own car, but it did suggest she had a history of deception.

The administration, which had so recently afforded Dunn its full support, now had to distance itself without rushing to judgment. Gann placed Dunn, who was coming to the end of her one-year contract, on a paid leave of absence during the investigation.

A small number of students, Christina Elmore among them, did not suffer from a crisis of faith at Dunn's unmasking. Dunn's case was a sideshow that did not change the truth of other incidents, she said.

But for those students whose consciences had only recently been awakened, this sudden reversal was disillusioning and bitter to contemplate. Administrators tried to reassure them that their response on the day after the vandalism had been appropriate to what they thought was true at the time.

"Their actions exemplified the leadership skills and a sense of civic responsibility that we seek to develop in our students," Gann said.

Some of the students weren't buying it.

"She basically insulted this whole school and embarrassed us all," said Glen Kim, a 21-year-old economics major at Claremont McKenna who had attended the protests after the vandalism. "I don't know what to think."

* * *

"It stank from the beginning," said Ken Masugi, a director at the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank founded 25 years ago by Claremont graduates. "It's a Reichstag fire."

A Reichstag fire. In 1933, someone set fire to the German parliament. Hitler, the newly appointed chancellor, used the fire (which the Nazis may have helped set) as a pretext to crack down on Communists, Jews, trade unionists and homosexuals.

Masugi was certain it was a fraud, because there was no precedent for it.

"Nothing this grotesque had ever occurred before," he said recently as he sipped tea in a Chinese restaurant near the institute's offices.

The only incident that could remotely compare, he said, happened in 1969.

Masugi was a senior then. Asian-American, he had come from a poor, largely black neighborhood in Tacoma, Wash. He understood well "the pathologies of the inner city," he said. But he had not seen what racial politics looked like until he arrived at what was then called Claremont Men's College. The faculty was fundamentally conservative, but a small group of black students were pushing for radical change.

They wanted blacks to account for 10 percent of the student body and 10 percent of the faculty. They wanted 10 percent of the budget to fund the creation of a black studies center and make changes to the curriculum. Their demands were ignored.

Then the pipe bombs started going off.

Over a 10-week period there were two bombings (a third bomb was found unexploded) and 25 arsons on the campus. One of the bombs, delivered in a package to a professor at Pomona, exploded in the hands of a 19-year-old secretary, maiming her.

"I really began to see what it means to stand for the principles of the founding fathers - liberty and equality - as opposed to the anarchy and irresponsibility of the radicals," Masugi said.

In Masugi's mind, no difference exists between the tactics of 1969 radicals and what he thinks Dunn did. They say they want to end racial discord, but their tactics only perpetuate it, Masugi believes. If people simply adhered to the Founding Fathers' color-blind principles, he said, there would be no need for special remedies that give preference to blacks over whites.

If only the Founding Fathers had followed their own principles.

* * *

Until he graduated in May, Dante Tolbert, 21, was part of the 4 percent of Claremont McKenna students who are black. He gets angry when he hears people such as Masugi suggest that any effort to bring more students like him to the school means that unqualified applicants are getting in.

"If I wasn't qualified to be here, I wouldn't have survived," he said.

He has nothing but praise for the education he has received. One of his biology professors was such a powerful influence, Tolbert decided that he wants to be a teacher, too.

Not all the education happened in the classroom.

"I came here for the challenge of dealing with people who are different from me," he said. He has stayed up late nights with other students, "wearing basketball shorts, eating Del Taco and talking about cross burnings."

During those conversations he tried to express to his white classmates that racism isn't always as obvious as the time two drunk white students at Pomona pushed a black female professor who had asked them to quiet down and called her a "black bitch."

It can be a far more subtle thing. Take the campuswide security alert issued for a black man who was reported walking behind two white female students in broad daylight. Why send that out, Tolbert asks, but nothing on a cross burning?

Tolbert does not make distinctions between incidents on campus and incidents in the world outside.

In 1999, the year before he arrived at Claremont McKenna, the local police shot an 18-year-old black motorist named Irvin Landrum Jr. They said he pulled a gun on them during a traffic stop, but the gun they said he had pointed at them had no fingerprints on it. Last year, the city paid $450,000 to Landrum's family.

As with Masugi, history has irrevocably altered Tolbert's view of the present.

Because Tolbert didn't think the police told the truth about that case, he doesn't think they are telling the truth about the vandalism of Dunn's car.

* * *

Kerri Dunn pleaded not guilty May 18 to two counts of insurance fraud, a felony, and one count of filing a false report, a misdemeanor.

Conservatives especially seem to crave a vigorous prosecution to fully discredit Dunn and, by extension, her beliefs. But will a guilty verdict achieve anything so clear-cut?

How could one hoax erase the truth of thousands of other real crimes any more than a history of verifiable prejudice could prove that she didn't vandalize her own car?

Whether Dunn did or did not commit the vandalism has no bearing on the fact that the same month as the cross burning in Claremont, a 22-year-old man in Sacramento, Calif., was charged with burning a cross in a black neighbor's front yard.

Dunn's guilt or innocence does not alter the fact that in February, the same month that the calendar was defaced, a white woman in Connecticut was videotaped distributing fliers urging whites to murder blacks.

Ironically, the most damaging legacy of the hoax, if that's what it was, may be that it changed nothing at all.

The left still thinks the right deliberately ignores, and maybe even encourages, routine acts of prejudice. They still would rather expel the kids who cluelessly burned the cross than try to educate them. The cure for everything is yet another specialty department.

The right still insists the left is fighting a battle that was won decades ago. They scoff at the notion of separate departments for black studies. Roll it into the mainstream curriculum, they say. But students such as Charles Rice freely admit they have no interest in the subject anyway.

"Frankly, I think I'd be bored to death," he said.

In the great middle are the well-intentioned students who for a brief moment were swept up in a cause they thought was just. They'd never given much thought to prejudice before. They'd never had to.

And as far as they're concerned, they still don't.

Anne Redfern, a 19-year-old sophomore at Claremont McKenna, took a couple of courses with Dunn last fall. She liked her teacher and her enthusiasm for liberal causes. She went to the rally after the vandalism.

"I realized it was a big deal," said Redfern, who comes from an island in Puget Sound, "but it seemed like there was such a reaction and there wasn't really a problem to discuss.

"It's not possible for that to happen here. We're bringing in smart, friendly people. Everybody's just so nice."

- Bill Duryea can be reached at 727 893-8457 or

[Last modified June 3, 2004, 11:53:04]

Floridian headlines

  • An education in hate
  • Man of the hour
  • We're off to see the Tonys
  • Tony Award nominees
  • Audio Files: Show Music

  • Sunday Journal
  • Tuning in to life
  • leaderboard ad here


    Back to Top

    © 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
    490 First Avenue South • St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • 727-893-8111