Features & Columns

New Hate Crime Allegations at San Jose State Reignite Racial Tensions

Racial tensions inflamed at San Jose State University
after hate crime allegations come to light
Ban the Box DEJA VU: Gregory Johnson Sr. returned to the campus his late son attended after four white San Jose State students were charged with hate crimes against their African American roommate. Photograph by Jennifer Wadsworth

Gregory Johnson Sr. stands in front of the angry crowd and closes his eyes. As he bows his head, the duct tape covering his mouth nearly touches his shirt, which is emblazoned with a picture of his dead son.

The chants keep coming: "Let the students speak!" Johnson, unable to contain his rage any longer, peels off the black tape—the symbol of his voice being silenced—and yells at the top of his lungs. He joins dozens of students who have rushed the stage and holds up black-and-white photos of his son's broken neck for the entire crowd to see. "Uncle Tom!" he roars. "Let the students speak!"

On Nov. 22, 2008, Johnson's son, Gregory Jr., was found in the basement of a San Jose State University fraternity house, dangling from a noose fashioned from an electrical cord. SJSU police ruled the 20-year-old's death inconclusive, while the county medical examiner called it a suicide. Johnson and his wife, Denise, maintain that the reports covered up a fatal, racially motivated hazing. On Monday, the couple came back to the college campus, but not just to talk about their son. Almost five years to the day Gregory Johnson Jr. died, recent events have inflamed racial tensions at the downtown campus.

"I knew this would happen again," Denise Johnson says, her hands shaking as she points to a printout of her child's obituary. "I knew it."

Last week, the District Attorney's office announced misdemeanor battery and hate crime enhancement charges against Logan Beaschler, 18; Colin Warren, 18; and Joseph Bomgardner, 19. A fourth white student was later charged, but his name has not been released because he is a minor. The young men allegedly called their freshman African American roommate "Three-Fifths" or "Fraction," referring to when slaves in the U.S. were considered three-fifths of a person. They also posted swastikas, a Confederate Flag and the word "nigger" on a living room white-board; barricaded him several times in a closet; and placed a U-shaped bike lock around his neck—twice.

All four suspects have been suspended from the school, and SJSU President Mohammad Qayoumi—whose administration has been consistently criticized by faculty and students since he got the job in 2011—appears to be accepting the blame.

"By failing to recognize the meaning of a Confederate flag, intervene earlier to stop the abuse, or impose sanctions as soon as the gravity of the behavior became clear, we failed him," Qayoumi said Monday morning. "I failed him."

Despite the admission, hundreds of students and faculty gathered that day on campus around the statues of Olympic sprinters and SJSU alumni Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who made civil rights history by raising their black-gloved fists as a salute to black power during the medal ceremony of the 1968 games in Mexico City. Members of the NAACP, who wants the DA to increase the charges to felonies, joined them.

Minutes after speakers made closing remarks and the crowd began chanting, students commandeered the stage and raised signs imploring the school to give them a voice. They criticized the campus for marginalizing its small but active African American population.

"Last semester, when we were protesting and requesting to meet with you, we were trying our hardest to let you know that something was terribly wrong with the experience that African American students are having at San Jose State," Gary Daniels, a student and Black Unity Chair, told Qayoumi from the podium. "But you did not want to hear us."

Kenyatta Yarn, a first-year SJSU student from North Carolina, said the school puts up "token black faces" on its website to give the appearance of diversity while offering little support for minorities on campus. Only after an incident as ugly as the recent allegations have administrators been willing to begin a discussion about race on campus. Despite being located in one of the most diverse counties in the state, complaints of discrimination tend to be ignored, Yarn says. "They paint this picture of diversity, but in fact it's an illusion."

In September, students held a mock funeral for the African-American Studies department, which Qayoumi said was cut due to a lack of interest. Mimi LeBreton, a work-study major in the program, questioned on Monday the timing of a possible hate crime coinciding with the campus administration's decision to roll back such course offerings.

Between fall 2009 and this semester, the number of black students at SJSU dropped from 1,323 to 1,020. Black students now make up just 3.26 percent of the overall campus population, a 1 percent drop in the past four years. The drop reflects a countywide trend. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, African Americans made up 2.6 percent of the county population, down from 3.7 percent in the '90s.

Meanwhile, hate crimes have also been on the decline. According to FBI statistics released this week, California authorities reported 910 hate crimes, with 379 of them racially motivated—a 17 percent dip from 2010. Of the 15 that occurred in San Jose last year, three were race-based and two took place at San Jose State. But the crime that came to light last week was the first in recent memory that garnered this level of media attention, says Rick Callender, VP of the California/Hawaii NAACP state chapters.

"We are calling for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, because this is a type of crime that affects not just victims, but the community as a whole," he says.

The DA, for its part, has so far resisted calls for the charges against the four students to be increased from misdemeanors.

"While we understand the outrage of those calling for even stiffer charges in this case, the charges are not a reflection of the degree of their racism," DA Jeff Rosen said. "The charges are a reflection of their criminal conduct."

Callender said Monday that the NAACP plans to petition U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and state Attorney General Kamala Harris to investigate the matter. Both offices said no decision has yet been made.