A text message that ‘all Asian people need to die’ has Occidental College in an uproar

A student walks through a courtyard at Occidental College on Feb. 8.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

In late 2020, an Occidental College student sent a text message to a friend that read: “all asian people need to die.”

She followed with another text saying Asians are “responsible for the pandemic so they need to die for that too.”

A year later, in October or November, the friend reported the text exchange to Occidental officials and her sorority, setting off a controversy that has roiled the small liberal arts college in Eagle Rock, as students question what they see as a delayed and inadequate response from the administration.


On Tuesday, after a crescendo of complaints, Occidental College President Harry J. Elam Jr. said the student who sent the racist texts is no longer enrolled at the school and has “expressed remorse and regret for her actions.”

Elam also promised to convene a series of campus forums and anti-bias workshops.

Marty Sharkey, Occidental’s vice president of communications and institutional initiatives, could not say why the student left the school. The student was not disciplined over the text messages, Sharkey said in an email.

The Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations on Wednesday released a special report on anti-Asian hate crime in LA County in 2020. The report revealed that anti-Asian hate crimes rose 76% from 25 to 44 in 2020, the largest number of anti-Asian hate crimes reported since 2001.

Oct. 20, 2021

The student who wrote the texts did not respond to requests for comment.

The events at Occidental have raised questions about how to address expressions of hate at universities, especially when communicated in private conversations.

A campus-wide email from Elam on Feb. 3, in which he condemned the texts but said the college was restricted by a state law protecting 1st Amendment rights at private schools, drew the ire of some students who wanted their peer to be held accountable.

“It angers me that it took the entire student body feeling hurt and harmed” for the administration to acknowledge the messages, senior Shanna Yeh said.

Students gather at a table at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Anaise Nugent, a junior, received the racist text messages more than a year ago.

She initially did not share them because she wanted to give her friend a chance to do better, she told The Times.


But, Nugent said, the friend made other discriminatory and offensive remarks, once saying she thought the recruitment of Black athletes took away spots from others like herself.

“I tried to give her an opportunity to learn from it, and she never did,” Nugent said.

In Orange County racial taunts of students of color, particularly at sporting events, still happen with alarming regularity.

Feb. 8, 2022

Knowledge of the text messages stayed mostly within the campus administration and the sorority, until someone posted them on Instagram on Feb. 2.

The Occidental chapter of the sorority Kappa Alpha Theta, to which both students belonged, has been thrown into turmoil.

Chapter leaders decided to expel the student who sent the messages, said Elizabeth Frissell, president of Kappa Alpha Theta’s Occidental chapter in 2021.

But the sorority’s national leaders opposed the expulsion, citing a bylaw stating that members cannot be punished for actions before joining the group.

The student joined the sorority last fall, after she wrote the messages.

Now, the Occidental chapter will vote on whether to disband because of members’ disappointment over the regional and national leadership.


Kappa Alpha Theta deeply regrets “that people were harmed by the hateful words of an individual previously associated with our organization,” the national organization’s chief marketing officer, Julianne Butler, said in a statement.

Yeh, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta who is half Chinese, said she felt brushed off when she reported the texts to the college administration — especially at a time when anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise.

“I didn’t barge into these meetings asking for the student to be expelled. I mainly was looking for accountability,” Yeh said. “I was looking for accountability in the form of recognition of the harm caused and how violent the language used was.”

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Feb. 10, 2022

Last week, chalk messages written by students to protest the racist texts were erased by campus staff. Elam later said erasing the messages was a mistake.

Also last week, in the Feb. 3 email to the campus community, Elam said he was “sickened and saddened” by the text messages, which he said he saw for the first time the previous day.

To explain why the school had not taken punitive action against the student, he cited California’s Leonard Law, which gives students at private colleges free-speech rights similar to those at public institutions.


“As difficult as it may be to reconcile, a private text conversation, which is not targeted at an individual and does not represent a credible threat, does not necessarily constitute unlawful harassment,” he wrote.

Because the texts were not directed at a particular Asian American student and did not meet the legal definition of a threat, they are constitutionally protected free speech, said Ken White, a 1st Amendment litigator at the law firm Brown White & Osborn in Los Angeles.

White, who has three Asian American children, including a daughter who attends Occidental, said he understands the outrage, especially given the anti-Asian racism of recent years.

“But legally, it’s not a close call,” he said.

Still, students such as Emily Driscoll, a senior and a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, said the college should have done more earlier.

“If people knew about this when the instance occurred, there would have been a lot less anger,” she said. “But the situation went unknown for the community for months, and it felt like the university was trying to sweep this under the rug.”