San Luis Obispo, CA
After a photo circulated showing a California Polytechnic State University student fraternity member in blackface, the university suspended the fraternity. An investigation was ordered, and, months later, the state attorney general found that the group’s members had not broken any state laws or California State University executive orders.
California Polytechnic State University, commonly referred to as “Cal Poly,” is a public institution in San Luis Obispo. At a school of 22,000 students, about one percent of the student body is estimated to be black, and about 57 percent white. Following earlier scandals emblematic of the school’s diversity issues, Cal Poly leaders pledged to create a more welcoming environment. The annual PolyCultural Weekend was initiated, during which student cultural groups guide prospective students through campus. It was during the 2018 iteration of this event that the blackface incident took place.
Lambda Chi Alpha, a national fraternity, suspended its Cal Poly chapter after news of the blackface incident broke, as the California Attorney General began an investigation.
Kyler Watkins was a senior at Cal Poly in 2018 at the time he wore blackface for a Lambda Chi Alpha party, prompting a national backlash.
The party at which Watkins was photographed wearing blackface took place on April 7, 2018. The image surfaced on social media, prompting immediate criticism from other students.
The next day, Lambda Chi Alpha released a statement apologizing for Watkins’s conduct and explained that he had painted his face black for a different, color-themed fraternity bash. However, according to KCBX News, a personal Instagram account with “ΛΧΑ” (Lambda Chi Alpha) and “Cal Poly” in its description posted a photo showing other fraternity brothers posing as Mexican gangsters at what appeared to be the same event. The caption read, “She want [sic] a gangster not a pretty boy.”
On April 9, the university’s Black Student Union released a statement condemning both the fraternity and Watkins. That same day, close to 400 students protested on campus, according to a Cal Poly student writing for the BBC. University administrators also hosted a student meeting that night, which was attended by students wishing to express their feelings on the incident.
In recent years, Cal Poly has experienced numerous identity- and race-related scandals, including past episodes with Lambda Chi Alpha. In 2013, the fraternity hosted a “Colonial Bros and Nava’Hos” party, prompting accusations of racism and sexism. In 2015, a death threat was made against the leader of a student advocacy group, and a student Republican organization erected a “Free Speech Wall” featuring anti-Muslim remarks. Following the 2018 blackface incident, the BBC reported that several prominent student activists began receiving death threats for criticizing Watkins’s actions, and became targets of racial slurs in the process. Flyers espousing racist and white supremacist ideology also appeared at the school’s agribusiness building.
University places Lambda Chi Alpha on interim suspension
In response to widespread backlash, the Cal Poly administration suspended Lambda Chi Alpha on an interim basis, requiring the fraternity to cancel all events and activities, according to KCBX. Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong asked the California attorney general to investigate the incident, according to the San Luis Obispo Tribune.
California Attorney General says Lambda Chi Alpha and Watkins did not break laws in blackface scandal
On October 2, 2018, the Attorney General’s Office announced that Lambda Chi Alpha and its students had not broken any laws during the April 2018 blackface incident. That same day, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said the university would “consider as part of its standard process of review” new information developed in the investigation.
Regardless of any further university action, the Lambda Chi Alpha national office said it would continue to hold its Cal Poly chapter on suspension until April 2019.
Prepared by Gustav Honl-Stuenkel ‘20
Uploaded to tracker: 12/19/2018