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Cornell University Blasted for Failing to Challenge Racism at New York’s County Fairs

Updated: Jan 4, 2019

In rural areas and suburbs across New York State, 4H youth, farmers, and vendors are taking part in their August county fairs, as they have for generations. In many communities, it’s the biggest event of the year.

But as fair season continues, controversy has deepened over the presence of racist symbols at these traditional agricultural fairs, and the hostile environment they create for people of color. Anti-racist activists based in Delhi, NY, backed by the local NAACP and Cornell student activists and alumnae, are going head to head with Cornell University in their fight to rid New York State’s county fairs of the Confederate flag – and make county fairs welcoming to everyone.

Cornell University administers the 4H youth education program that is at the heart of county fairs, and oversees Cornell’s county extension offices, which take an active role in supporting the fairs – though Cornell does not directly fund these offices. Fair for All and its allies are asking Cornell University and the local Cornell Cooperative Extensions to speak out publicly against the sale or display of Confederate flag merchandise at county fairs and to urge fair boards to change their policies.

“Cornell says that equity, inclusion, and educating young people to appreciate diversity is a core part of its mission,” said Christina Hunt Wood, co-founder of Fair for All, a group that was formed last year to challenge racism at the Delaware County Fair. “But what kind of education is Cornell providing when it fails to challenge overt racism at events it participates in? Cornell should use its power and resources to stand up to bigotry and educate people to counter it, not quietly accept it. Cornell should be promoting equity and diversity in our community, at our county fair, and at county fairs throughout the state.”

Fair for All activists, the NAACP, and other allies say the presence at county fairs of the Confederate flag, a symbol of white supremacy, is harmful to individuals and the community. “It sends a message to fair-goers that bigotry is the unchallenged norm in our area,” said Wood. “It tells the thousands of tourists who come to the fair every year that this a place that tolerates racism. It also insults the families of those whose ancestors died fighting the Confederate flag. We aren’t going to look the other way anymore. We want our community to be welcoming to everyone. That starts when people who say they are for equity and inclusion actually stand up and fight for it.”

University president Martha Pollack recently called on the Cornell community to “speak out against injustice, racism and bigotry” following a racist incident on campus. But in a letter to Fair for All, Pollack argued that the university does not “sponsor” or fund county fairs, and so was powerless to speak out against racism at the fair. Trustees Chairman Robert Harrison echoed the argument, telling Fair for All that while he agrees that “the Confederate Flag is a toxic symbol of our racial history and I wish it would not have a place in goods displayed at county fairs,” the university was unable to take a stance, even though under the law it has the full right to speak out on matters of public concern such as this.  

Meanwhile, the Delaware County Cornell Cooperative Extension voted that it would stay “neutral” on the issue of the Confederate flag at the Delaware County Fair, in which it is a highly visible participant. At a July 25 meeting of the local extension, Lee Fisher, president of the local NAACP chapter, based in Oneonta, joined Fair for All and other community members in calling on the Extension to change its position and take a stand, noting that the Confederate flag has been at the forefront of hateful rallies that divide people from each other.

Cornell student activists are also supporting the campaign, writing to Cornell University President Pollack: “If the university has even a speck of integrity during this political moment of intensified bigotry, it will publicly oppose the sale and display of racist symbols at county fairs affiliated with CCE, 4H, and Cornell at large. Anything less than concrete steps to stamp out these practices amounts to institutional cowardice, if not tacit support for the malignant resurgence of white nationalist and neo-Confederate sympathies across the country.”

Fair for All began its campaign in 2017, following several years of controversy over the Confederate flag at the Delaware County Fair. In 2015, the fair’s board of directors had refused to tell vendors to stop selling Confederate flags, stating instead, “The more of them, the better.” The New York State Fair requested that vendors stop selling the flag in 2015. Walmart, Amazon, eBay, and other major retailers have also stopped selling Confederate flag items.

In 2017, when activists, with children, wagons, and balloons in tow, tried to enter the fairgrounds on its free admission day to deliver a petition on the issue, they were threatened with arrest.  In 2018, the fair board agreed that they would not allow the display of flags outside vendors’ tents, but still refused to tell vendors they could not sell the flags – though the sale of other items (including alcohol and sex toys) is prohibited at this private, “family-friendly” event.

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