Hopkins frat takes page from rap songbook

November 22, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

So Johns Hopkins University's Sigma Chi fraternity got the probation ax on Monday. Now come the really hard questions.

A brief recap might be in order. On Oct. 28, members of Sigma Chi held a "Halloween in the Hood" party in their 33rd Street house. Outside, a skeleton dressed in a pirate costume hung from a noose. Inside, some party attendees allegedly wore costumes "offensive" to blacks.

Before the party, Hopkins junior Justin Park issued computer invitations containing stereotypes and calling Baltimore an "HIV pit." A Hopkins official ordered Park to remove the original invitation. The ever-clever Mr. Park then issued a second one with the language changed very little.

A "Student Conduct Board" at Hopkins nailed Sigma Chi with the probation. I'm clear on the board's finding that Sigma Chi "had failed to exercise appropriate supervision over" Park. I'm also clear about the board's findings that "the party itself was held in violation of university party registration requirements" and that Sigma Chi "violated the express directions of a university administrator" and "harmed the university's reputation."

It's the charge that Sigma Chi's party "result[ed] in actions taken on the chapter's behalf that failed to respect the rights of others [and] that constituted harassment and intimidation under university policy" I'm having trouble with.

As over-the-top, inappropriate and offensive as Park's invitations were, exactly what "rights" of Hopkins' black students did those invitations violate? The "right" not to be offended?

I've said it a couple of dozen times before. Others have said it. We'll just keep saying it until the idea sinks in: There is no right, constitutional or otherwise, to not be offended. Oh, I suppose if someone - and I'm thinking of Supreme Court justices and federal and state appeals court judges here - were to root around in the "penumbra" of the Constitution long enough, they could yank out a right not to be offended.

It's from the "penumbra" of the Constitution that the "right to privacy" was cobbled together by the Supreme Court in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut. That led to Eisenstadt v. Baird, which led to Roe v. Wade, that sterling example of judicial excess.

No judge anywhere has as yet found a constitutional right to not be offended, though one apparently exists on the Hopkins campus. (You may have noticed that no one has dared suggest that party attendees had their rights violated when Hopkins security shut down the affair because some black students were "offended" by the costumes and the hanging pirate.)

And it seems there exists a climate in which Park's ads were harassing and intimidating as well. But where did Park learn harassing and intimidating language like "bling bling ice ice," "grills," "hoochie hoops" and "the hood" in the first place? Not on the Hopkins campus, where I've taught a writing class for 10 years.

That sounds like language coming straight out of songs and videos by black rappers. In fact, one could actually commend Park for using the least offensive language from those songs and videos.

"They all rap about the same thing," Joseph E. Marshall Jr. said last week in a discussion about hip-hop music and black rappers, rattling off a short list of the most common offensive terms. Marshall, the executive director of the Omega Boys Club in San Francisco, was speaking to a group of black columnists at Stanford University. He didn't know about the Sigma Chi controversy at Hopkins. But his comments were certainly pertinent to it.

"Today's hip-hop music, there's nothing to it," Marshall said. "All you're going to get out of today's hip-hop music is baby mamas and baby daddies." Rap videos, Marshall continued, have basically one theme: women shaking booties and guys throwing money.

Lest anyone accuse Marshall of creeping curmudgeonhood or felonious fuddy-duddyism, I should point out that Juan Williams, author of Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America - and What We Can Do About It, said similar things in his book. When I interviewed him, Williams said that black rappers today perpetuate even worse stereotypes of African-Americans than Hollywood films of the 1930s, '40s and '50s ever did.

Park and Sigma Chi have been hung out to dry for using the same language as black rappers. It would be easy to criticize black leaders for chiding Park and Sigma Chi and not black rappers, but in all fairness Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, took black rappers to task for the language they use during a demonstration at Hopkins this month.

Ralph Moore, a 1974 Hopkins grad who serves as the director of the community center at St. Frances Academy, also attended the demonstration. He agreed with Cheatham on that point.

"We do need to hold ourselves accountable," Moore said.

For now only Sigma Chi is being held accountable (although Hopkins officials did commit themselves to developing courses and conducting workshops and seminars on the history of racism). Hopkins ordered fraternity members to "incorporate diversity training into its new-members program and [to] hold four on-campus and four off-campus cultural events," according to a story by Sun reporter Sumathi Reddy. Those recommendations compel Sigma Chi members to take all steps but the most obvious one.

Stop listening to rap music.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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