Identity politics is having an identity crisis.
Parading as a noble cause to elevate only one side of the hyphenated American, identity politics has always cultivated a mean streak, a vulnerable underbelly of hatred for the “other” it indiscriminately blames for prejudice against African Americans, Native Americans and any other culture perceived to be at the mercy of the white man.
No one disputes that prejudice based on race and religion is a terrible thing, but it’s a simple truth that truth should not be sacrificed in looking for it. While identity politics seeks to liberate the victim of prejudice by asserting pride and punishment, it has sometimes pursued punishment with moral arrogance encouraging playing loosely with facts.
That’s what happened at Oberlin College, a bastion of super-liberal teaching and social activism in the grove of academe. Oberlin was once the preserve of abolitionists and presided over by Charles G. Finney, a 19th-century abolitionist and fiery Presbyterian evangelist of the Second Great Awakening. But now Oberlin has lost a major lawsuit for abetting what might be described as “a collective hate-crime hoax,” and the case could be a tipping point against political correctness. A petty shoplifting incident involving Oberlin students grew into a vicious protest against innocent parties. The innocent parties sued and won.
On first hearing the superficial facts of Gibson Bros. vs. Oberlin College, it’s tempting to see how easy, in the current cultural climate, it can be to draw erroneous conclusions based on knee-jerk assumptions of racial prejudice. A black student walked into a white family-run market and Allyn Gibson, son of the owner who is working there, not only inspected the student’s ID card and found it suspicious, but suspected the student intended to steal wine. When he ran out of the shop and the clerk, who is white, collared him, it’s obvious the clerk was motivated by racism, right? Not quite.
It turns out the ID was indeed a fake. Two shop-lifted bottles of wine fell out of the student’s shirt. The student and two friends who had run to his rescue, all black, pleaded guilty to “attempted theft and aggravated trespass” and conceded that “Gibson’s [market] was not engaging in racial profiling.” A mob mentality was nevertheless loosed on the Oberlin campus, and at Oberlin a white guy chasing a black guy can be proof of guilt. Staff and students boycotted Gibson’s Market, persuaded the college to suspend a contract with Gibson’s — in business for more than 130 years — to provide food services on campus. The Gibson family was branded racist.
The family sued and won steep damages for libel, business interference and emotional distress. The jury not only heard testimony about the damage done to the Gibsons and their store, but how the nominal adults in charge at Oberlin pushed a false narrative and gave in to student demands based on it. Oberlin’s dean of students handed out a handbill accusing the market of a “long account of racial profiling and discrimination.” Over five years, of the 40 arrested for shoplifting at Gibson’s, only six were black.
After a trial that lasted more than six weeks, the jury awarded Gibson’s $11.2 million in compensatory damages and later $33.2 million were added for punitive damages. Gibson’s Food Mart and Bakery, a fifth-generation family business that contributed to Oberlin and the community for more than 130 years, was vindicated.
Legal Insurrection blog, which has followed the case when few media outlets paid much if any attention, calls it a “victory of the ordinary men and women of Gibson’s Bakery over the smug, dismissive, arrogant higher-ed bureaucrats and their social justice warrior troops.”
Some legal analysts call the court decision a threat to free speech and onerous for universities, but others cite the psychological and economic damage inflicted on innocent people. College and university officials would know better, it seems to me, if they’re as wise and intelligent as they say they are. “This historic ruling confirms that no institution, no matter how powerful, may baselessly smear individuals or businesses in pursuit of their political or social agenda, and even a college as influential as Oberlin may be held accountable for its actions in a court of law,” says Cornell University law professor William Jacobson.
While Oberlin College is the oldest co-educational liberal arts college in the United States and was one of the first to admit women and African Americans, it has become a caricature of campus “snowflakes,” a cartoon of political correctness in reckless pursuit of piety on display.
Free speech is a priceless protection for freedom, but Oberlin is learning at considerable cost that justice is not blind to bullying and libel on a campus where self-righteousness is highly prized. Oberlin’s students are getting an expensive teaching moment.
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.