César Chávez Day and University Values

April 8, 2010

To: Campus community
From: Paul J. Zingg, President
Subject line: César Chávez Day and University Values

Many of you are aware that some of our state's campuses this spring have been experiencing disturbing and offensive acts of racism and hate. At UC San Diego, a student-organized “Compton Cookout” party encouraged attendees to wear outfits supposedly reflecting inner-city ghetto life and behavior. When people correctly voiced their protests, a UCSD campus group used racial epithets on television to defend the party, and later a noose -- the terrifying symbol of slavery, racial hatred and oppression -- was found in the library. At UC Davis, six swastikas have been found on campus, including one carved into the door of a Jewish student’s dormitory room. And there have been other acts of hate speech and violence as well.

Chico has had incidents of hatred and prejudice over the years. We have also seen many groups and individuals, on and off campus, devoted to decrying such acts and teaching understanding and respect for all people regardless of their differences. Our students, who tend to be more ethnically diverse than our surrounding communities, have reported being targets of racial and ethnic slurs, hate-based vandalism, and other incidents that are directed at them because of their perceived race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

Last week, on the state holiday marking César Chávez's birthday, there were widespread incidents of party-goers in Chico dressed to reflect their apparent notions of a stereotypical Mexican. The idea that César Chávez Day should be regarded as a party day, to be compared, as some did, to St. Patrick's Day celebrations, is at the very least disrespectful to the legacy of César Chávez, as well as those who remember him and identify with his good works. But beyond this, and even more offensive, is the flaunting of alleged stereotypical Mexican dress or items and thinking nothing of it. This is repugnant behavior, and ignorance of César Chávez, or lack of a broader understanding of Mexican or Mexican-American culture and history, is no excuse. As one Chico State student put it in an Orion story this week, "Would some people paint their face black on Martin Luther King Jr. Day?" It is shameful that our campus hosted talks this spring by two of Chávez's most cherished colleagues, Dolores Huerta and Marc Grossman, and then watched as Chávez's birthday was noted most in the media for drunkenness and police arrests.

Let me be very clear. César Chávez Day is not a “traditional Mexican drinking holiday.” It provides no more an excuse to get drunk, put on fake mustaches and parade around in the alleged costume of a migrant farm worker than Martin Luther King Jr. Day gives license to put on black face or insinuate that African-American culture is defined by ghetto gear and gang signs.

I will shortly be unveiling for the campus the initial draft of a diversity action plan, which I commissioned a team of our colleagues to develop. It is entitled “To Form a More Inclusive Community.” The title flows from my articulation of the value of diversity on our campus, namely, that “we pursue diversity not just as an idea to embrace, but as a community to form.” Diversity, in other words, is a core value of our University and it is vital to the quality and spirit of our work and community.

As an inclusive community of learning, we are required to face prejudice, to recognize its flawed bases, and to emphasize the dignity of all persons. We abhor any expressions that defy civil and respectful discourse, that promote intolerance and racism, or that hinder the University’s commitment and responsibility to provide a supportive living, working and learning environment and to prepare students to live successfully, productively, and wisely in a pluralistic society.

We must, all of us, do more to be mindful and respectful of other cultures. Clearly, we need events and shared thinking about how to prevent incidents, such as what occurred last week, from repeating. Our University, for all our sakes, must learn from this, must be vigilant about any and all incidents of hate and prejudice, and must ensure that every campus community member knows that we place the value of diversity at the core of our mission, vision and priorities.

We have much work to do in these regards. It will take more than my and other’s exhortations or an action plan to accomplish it. It will take more than teach-outs and teach-ins, diversity summits and offices, panel discussions and retreats--all of which we do.  Simply said, we should never miss an opportunity to affirm our values, pursue our goals, and raise both our expectations and performance as a safe, supportive, and respectful community for all who are a part of it. We cannot succeed as a university, much less be a very good one, unless we live our professed values in an intentional and accountable way. We can be ennobled and defined by the daunting and necessary tasks we undertake and the progress we make. This is a wake-up call to that end.