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California

USC student president says frat member shouted racial epithet, threw drink at her

Rini Sampath

Rini Sampath, student body president of USC. Sampath was walking home Saturday night past a fraternity house when she says someone hurled a racial epithet at her.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The president of USC’s undergraduate student government -- who was born in India -- reports that a fraternity member called her a racial epithet, cursed her and hurled a drink at her through a window last weekend.

The incident, which government leader Rini Sampath described on her Facebook page this week, has roiled the campus with discussions about racism and triggered calls for a full and formal investigation.

Sampath, who was elected this year as the first woman student body president at USC since 2006, wrote that she and friends were walking past a fraternity house when a student screamed at her “You Indian piece of s--t,” and threw his drink at her.

“Once his fraternity brothers realized it was me, they began to apologize,” she wrote in her posting. “This stung even more. Today, as I try to unpack these events, I couldn’t quite figure out why their after-the-fact apologies deepened the wound. But one of my friends explained it to me the best this morning: ‘Because now you know, the first thing they see you as is subhuman.’ And that’s the first thing some students on our campus see when they look at anyone who looks like me.”

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“I’m still in a state of shock. There’s an indescribable hollowness in me, but I’m going public with this because this can’t continue,” Sampath wrote. “Some people don’t believe racism like this can happen on our campus. Some people continue to doubt the need for safe spaces and the need for expanded cultural resource centers or the need for gender neutral bathrooms or the need for diversity in our curriculum or the need for diversity in our professors or the need for diversity in dialogue. And to those who continue to believe we’re just playing the “race” card, I ask you this — what’s there to win here? A sense of respect? A sense of humanity? A sense of love and compassion for others regardless of how they look like?”

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Sampath did not immediately respond to requests for comment. She did not identify the fraternity or the person in her posting.

Varun Soni, USC’s dean of religious life, said Tuesday in an interview that Sampath has filed a formal complaint with the campus public safety office and that incident would be thoroughly investigated by either that agency or another committee at the university.

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Soni said that such an epithet appears to violate the school’s “principles of community” and could lead to some discipline. He said it was too soon to specify which sanctions the person could face, but he noted that other schools have suspended and expelled some students in similar cases.

“The university will not tolerate any threatening or intimidating conduct directed at another student,” Soni said. 

Soni, who also was born in India, said he felt “heartbroken professionally” by the report of the epithet but also personally since he recalled he experienced similar taunts and curses when he was an undergraduate at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He said he appreciated Sampath’s “courage” in going public and said he hoped that would “empower other students to share their stories” so the university could determine how much of a problem exists.

In Sampath’s post, she said: “Whether racism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia happens on the internet, or behind closed doors, or in a small group setting, or as “just a joke,” it’s not okay. It’s never okay.”

On Tuesday evening USC issued a campus-wide letter jointly signed by Ainsley Carry, vice president for student affairs, and by Sampath. “Our community shared strong reactions of sadness, anger and dismay as racist conduct by a student brought shame to all of USC. This incident does not reflect or represent who we are,” the letter said in part. It added that all students and staff have a right to “feel included, respected and safe.”

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The statement urged students to report incidents of bias and hate crimes and provided a link to a campus website that explains procedures. The letter did not specify any details of the incident Sampath described.

“Although the constitutional right of free speech protects much hateful and bigoted speech, we expect all students to uphold our Principles of Community, which include respect for diverse beliefs and backgrounds as one of our highest ideals.”

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Late Tuesday, the USC Interfraternity Council issued a statement saying it was “deeply saddened by the incident involving racist comments directed towards Student Body President Rini Sampath by a member of a fraternity.”

The statement went on to say that the council supported “the actions taken by the chapter to hold their member accountable by suspending his membership and evicting him from the chapter house,” but it did not name the student or fraternity.

The matter was first reported by the Daily Trojan and the Washington Post.

Follow me @larrygordonlat.

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