WASHINGTON (AP) — The hanging of bananas from nooses with hateful messages at American University in Washington, apparently targeting the first black woman to serve as the student body president, prompted members of Congress to call for federal civil rights investigations on Thursday.
At least five bananas with nooses were found hanging from trees and lampposts around campus on Monday, Taylor Dumpson's first full day as student president.
The FBI said Thursday that it is assisting a hate-crime investigation opened by campus police. The bananas included messages targeting Dumpson's historically black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, along with the words "Harambe bait," referring to the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo that was shot and killed after a child fell into its enclosure.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, and other members of Congress who are Alpha Kappa Alpha alumni called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to denounce and investigate the incident. They said President Donald Trump should speak out as well.
"What happened at American University is tragic. A young woman's historic achievement has been clouded by hatred and bigotry," said Rep. Alma Adams, a North Carolina Democrat. "This incident is just the latest in a string of atrocities sweeping our nation. It's not a coincidence since President Trump's election that we've experienced a wave of intolerance and divide."
A report by the Department of Education's civil rights division found that complaints of racial harassment on college campuses had more than doubled between 2009 and 2016.
Some have led to federal prosecutions. One of two former University of Mississippi students was sentenced to probation last year for placing a noose on the statue of James Meredith, the school's first black student. The other was sentenced to six months in prison.
Just this week, officials at the University of Maryland, about 9 miles from the AU campus, said a noose was found inside a fraternity house. That, too, is being investigated as a hate crime. And last September at AU, white students were accused of placing bananas outside the doors of two black women's dorm rooms.
Dumpson has said she was disturbed by racist comments on a messaging app that were traced to the campus during her freshman year, and that she considered transferring. Flanked by members of Congress outside the Capitol on Thursday, she made her first extensive comments about this week's case, saying she hopes it can be a "catalyst for change" that leads the university to a more unified response to acts of bias on campus.
"At the end of the day, this isn't just AU. This isn't just about me. This is a broader issue that impacts everyone," she said. "As a community, as a nation, we are never going to get anywhere if we do not talk about the uncomfortable truths that lie ahead. We are not in a post-racial society, unfortunately."
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