Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra said that his college student son Ryan Vierra is being vilified on campus and in social media after he was photographed standing next to a fellow fraternity member who was in blackface during a fraternity event.
Vierra's image appears in a tightly cropped photo with a student in blackface which has gone viral. He was also identified by name in the college student newspaper.
"It's been hard on him because he's got people calling him a racist," said Mayor Vierra. "He was just standing there at the wrong place at the wrong time. It would be no different than if I walked behind you with a blackface and somebody took a picture and called you a racist. Some of his best friends are Hispanic and people of color. At least his friends are supporting him."
The Lamba Chi Alpha frat was participating in a Saturday, April 7 gathering that included games like beer pong and a hotdog eating contest and was attended by 170 students. Frat members used colors to form teams to represent a red, yellow, blue and black. Vierra, an agricultural systems management junior, was part of the yellow team, which also mocked gang members in jest.
"There's a second photo out there that kind of shows them in gang poses, which is very similar to what you see the cheerleaders or anybody around here when they're flashing signs," said Vierra. "I don't think they thought anything of it because ... I don't think gang members are a protected class."
The mayor said someone took a screenshot of a cell phone video which included Ryan on the right side of the frame with Kyler Watkins, a Cal Poly student who was in blackface. Ryan Vierra didn't know Watkins, only his name since they belong to Lamba Chi Alpha, explained the mayor.
"For the one to two minutes that he was there, somebody obviously took a picture and the next thing he knows his picture, his name is in the school newspaper is going viral," said Mayor Vierra. He said he believes the photo was publicized by a "disgruntled female professor" who gave it an activist.
The university is conducting an investigation into the matter under Title 9 but so far it appears it was a case of freedom of speech.
Mayor Vierra said University President Jeffrey Armstrong responded with what he calls a politically correct statement that said, "the pictures from the event have caused pain to many members of our community. For those who have been hurt and offended, please know that I stand with you." The letter also said: "They are senseless acts of ignorance that injure and alienate valued members of our community. They must stop."
Vierra said Armstrong's statement was premature since the investigation has not been concluded.
"He's feeling a lot of pressure from the liberal side of things."
On Thursday the school found no breach of Title 9 which safeguards against racial discrimination, said Mayor Vierra. But the fraternity has been placed on a one-year suspension and members will undergo diversity training. In response to the outrage expressed by some students, Watkins wrote a letter of apology saying he didn't even know what blackface was and said he wish he hadn't done it. Watkins wrote, in part, "I take full responsibility for the lack of judgment I displayed when I painted my face black at a brotherhood event on April 7, 2018. If there's any part of this message to take into consideration, I hope it would be that my ill-informed decision to paint my face black had nothing whatsoever to do with racism or discrimination. Growing up white and privileged, I was truly unaware of how insensitive I was to the racial implications of blackface."
Blackface gained popularity during the 19th century and was a form of theatrical make-up used predominantly by non-black performers to represent a caricature of a black person. Actor Al Jolson used blackface on stage and in films and was criticized as racist even though he had been credited for fighting against black discrimination on Broadway. As time went on, blackface was considered offense and disappeared from the American landscape.
Vierra said the controversy took on an overtly political tone during a meeting of the university's Fraternity Council with some emotional students using profanity laced tirades, "screaming and saying, ‘You're all f-----g Trump-Pence voters."
According to the mayor, things got ugly in at least one sociology class where a professor publicly called out and shamed three members of the fraternity on Wednesday. The professor showed a blow-up of the photo and launched into a "complete tirade" that the students should be expelled from Cal Poly, said Vierra.
"He got them so bad that they were in tears and two of them got up in the middle of the class and walked out and immediately dropped the class," Vierra reported. When others challenged the professor for coming on too hard, "he immediately turned on them and started going after them strong."
Vierra said he is concerned that his son may be unjustly impacted in the future since someone has created a Wikipedia page on him.