How a Vindictive Classmate and a Cowardly University Ruined a Girl’s Life

ARacial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning”

That’s how the New York Times headlined its hit piece on a college freshman for something she had said as a high school freshman. Mimi Groves was still a child when she said, in a Snapchat recording, “I can drive” followed by the “n-word” — the racial slur.

Jimmy Galligan, a half-black student who graduated from Heritage High School in Virginia this past spring with Groves, obtained this video during their senior year. Per Galligan himself, he waited until Groves had been accepted to, and chose to enroll at, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to release the video — which went viral.

The resulting firestorm led to a torrent of abuse, and to an ultimatum from the University of Tennessee to Groves: withdraw voluntarily or have your offer of admission rescinded. Groves, who is white, chose the former and is now taking courses at a local community college instead of at her dream school — the reckoning.

Should the former two have led to the third on the scale that Groves is now facing? Any reasonable person would say no. Even conceding the obvious — she shouldn’t have used that slur in any context — there’s little indication she used it out of hatred for black people. In fact, the context seems clear: Groves said it casually, as hundreds of hip-hop tracks do every year. That doesn’t excuse the behavior, which should be considered unacceptable. But it is an important distinction from using the slur with animus, which was obviously not her intention.

There are many to blame for what’s happened. If Groves can be held responsible for a poor decision rendered in her mid teens, surely Galligan can be as well for deliberately trying to ruin a classmate’s life four years later — a worse crime at a more mature age. But regardless of Galligan’s culpability, institutions such as the University of Tennessee and the New York Times are far more deserving of scorn than either of these Virginia teens.

At the university, cowardice won the day. Facing calls on social media for Groves’s acceptance to be rescinded, administrators bowed to pressure from a vocal minority, forgoing what was right to do what was most convenient. It was easier for university officials to hang Groves out to dry than to withstand the intense but brief storm themselves. So that’s what they did.

Their decision had nothing to do with racial or any other kind of justice. They didn’t care if Groves would feel “comfortable on campus” — language they used to persuade her to withdraw prior to handing her the ultimatum — and they didn’t honestly believe that black students on campus would be at risk were she to enroll. The only thing that mattered to them was escaping the situation with as little effort and scrutiny as possible. Forget taking a stand and explaining why they wouldn’t punish a young woman for a mistake she made as a child. It was all about damage control. I wonder how many of us would ultimately qualify for acceptance to the University of Tennessee were we held to the same standard as Mimi Groves from our freshman years of high school onward.

And at the Times, disgraceful (yet now familiar) behavior also won out. To signal approval of Galligan’s behavior to readers without outright endorsing it, Dan Levin, the article’s author, notes that Galligan had “made a decision that would ricochet across Leesburg, Va., a town named for an ancestor of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and whose school system had fought an order to desegregate for more than a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling.” The ridiculous implication is that the name of Groves’s town and its opposition to integration over 50 years ago justified her treatment.

Levin adds that “the story behind the backlash also reveals a more complex portrait of behavior that for generations had gone unchecked in schools in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, where Black students said they had long been subjected to ridicule” before going on to share the stories of students who were forced to endure appalling racist treatment by their classmates or even have “Underground Railroad” games forced on them in gym class. As maddening as these stories are, they describe people guilty of far worse than Groves’s offense. Levin’s attempt to blur the lines between her case and more damning ones is contemptible — or worse.

Levin also records an anecdote from Galligan that helpfully illuminates just how wrong what Galligan did was:

Mr. Galligan thinks a lot about race, and the implications of racial slurs. He said his father was often the only white person at maternal family gatherings, where “the N-word is a term that is thrown around sometimes” by Black relatives. A few years ago, he said his father said it aloud, prompting Mr. Galligan and his sister to quietly take him aside and explain that it was unacceptable, even when joking around.

Just a few paragraphs later:

For his role, Mr. Galligan said he had no regrets. “If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” he said. And because the internet never forgets, the clip will always be available to watch.

“I’m going to remind myself, you started something,” he said with satisfaction. “You taught someone a lesson.”

For his father, Galligan calmly explained why using slurs — even casually — is wrong. For Groves, he summoned national opprobrium on her and her family and denied her the opportunity to attend her dream school. Those that are so unforgiving as to seek this retribution, so cowardly as to grant it, and so dishonest as to excuse it are broken.

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