A few weeks ago, we were trying to collect our thoughts with a view to writing something about race relations in the United States. Specifically, we were thinking of the ways in which blacks and whites view, and often misunderstand, each other and how that relates to issues of racial injustice involving, for example, discrimination in housing and employment and distortions of the criminal justice system. Then we were interrupted by the events at the University of Missouri and the ensuing wave of protests at campuses across the country. Perhaps in common with many readers of RINOcracy.com, we had trouble deciding what to make of it all. We are still not certain, but thought we would share a few tentative observations in hopes that they would be of interest and with the thought of returning in a later blog to perhaps more significant racial issues.
It has seemed to us that the campus protesters may have something in common with the supporters of Donald Trump, a comparison, we recognize, that will not please either group. In the case of each, however, we think that there are genuine reasons for their members to be upset, and even angry, but that their response has not been particularly constructive. We can understand Trump supporters who feel that the government has not functioned well, has not listened to their concerns, and has favored others at their expense. We think, however, that they err in channeling their anger and frustration into support of a candidate who, in our view, is manifestly unqualified, by experience or temperament, to be president. As for the campus protesters, we do not doubt that many have observed or been the recipient of some form of racial animus. Such experiences are at best regrettable and at worst deplorable. We do not believe, however, that the protesters serve their own cause, or the cause of the larger minority community, by noisy or even violent demonstrations in support of demands that often appear extravagant.
Until recently, we had not been familiar with the concept of “microaggressions,” on the one hand, and “safe spaces” on the other. Some will say that is because of racial isolation and the fact that we enjoy white privilege, and perhaps that is so. Nevertheless, having tried to learn a bit about both concepts, we believe that, while there is something to each, they do not justify many of the demands that have been made–and sometimes agreed to. The term microaggressions appears to cover conduct that ranges from unintentional slights to deliberate slurs. The term “safe space” appears to refer in some cases to providing a specific location where students might gather to be protected from hostility on racial or various other grounds such as gender or sexual orientation. In other cases, it appears to refer to the goal of making the entire campus a safe space.
We recognize that even on the micro end of the scale, microaggressions can be hurtful and we regret that they seem to occur more frequently than many of us might have supposed. Sadly, we are reminded of Rodney King’s plea during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, “Can we all get along?” Certainly, colleges and universities should seek ways of improving cross-cultural understanding and, even more generally, to convey a message of the need to act not only with civility but courtesy and respect toward those with whom one may disagree or who are just “different.” We are, however, concerned about measures that impinge on freedom of expression. We also question investments in facilities that may give greater recognition to a minority, or provide a safe space, but may also increase the very sense of isolation they are intended to address. We are also wary of scapegoating individual faculty or administrators deemed to be insufficiently sensitive to the concerns of minorities or insufficiently aggressive in responding to microaggressions of one kind or another. Finally, we are uneasy at the prospect of expunging the names of historical figures from campus buildings or campus tradition.
As to the clash with freedom of expression, the incontestably liberal writer, Nicholas Kristof, warned in a November 11 column entitled “Mizzou, Yale and Free Speech” how sensitivity to minority concerns may go too far.
We’ve also seen Wesleyan students debate cutting funding for the student newspaper after it ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. At Mount Holyoke, students canceled a production of “The Vagina Monologues” because they felt it excluded transgender women. Protests led to the withdrawal of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker at Rutgers and Christine Lagarde at Smith.
This is sensitivity but also intolerance, and it is disproportionately an instinct on the left.
More recently, George Will published a November 25 column, “America’s Higher Education Brought Low,” collecting bizarre examples of the somersaults that various schools have performed in the name of sensitivity. They included “The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, an irony-free campus, declared the phrase “politically correct” a microaggression.” One of my own personal favorites came from a report in the Ottawa Sun that “Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students, ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of “cultural appropriation.” There may also be serious also free speech implications in recent proposals for mandatory courses in diversity training for students and faculty.
Examples of the kinds of investments about which we are dubious were provided by Yale President Peter Solovey in a letter responding to protests that had erupted largely over whether students should, or should not, be counseled on what kinds of Halloween costumes were inappropriate. Among the steps proposed by Solovey was the creation of a prominent university center devoted to “intense study” of “race, ethnicity and other aspects of social identity.” Fareed Zakaria, writing in The Washington Post, cast a skeptical eye on such projects and quoted an earlier essay by Toni Judt in the New York Review of Books:
Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: ‘gender studies,’ ‘women’s studies,’ ‘Asian-Pacific-American studies,’ and dozens of others. The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves— thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. All too frequently, such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays, and so forth.
There is increasingly a perception on campuses that there are groups of students who have administrators, social clubs and courses specifically for them. This does not help minorities. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in 1954, in words that were meant to change the United States, “separate . . . [is] inherently unequal.”
Put another way, creating safe spaces may come at a cost to the intended beneficiaries as well as the school.
One of the difficulties in appraising particular events of campus conflict is that the particular facts are often obscure. In an op-ed column in The New York Times on November 27, “Black Tape at Harvard Law,” Randall Kennedy offered a thoughtful and informative exploration of the kinds of unknowns that must be considered in such situations. Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School and had suffered a microaggression when his picture in a law school hall, along with those of other black professors, had been defaced with black tape. Kennedy not only speculated on various possible motives of the picture vandals, but explained some of the the unknowns in other incidents claimed by some to reflect institutional racism. But such a calm and objective appraisal is hard to come by as indeed the basic facts sometimes are as well. Certainly that was the case in the protest at the University of Missouri which we will discuss in Part II.
We will consider there the forced resignations at the University of Missouri, and Claremont University, the attempt to force firings or resignations at Yale and proposals to increase faculty “diversity.” We will also consider the buildings at Princeton named for Woodrow Wilson, the college at Yale named for John C. Calhoun and the “Lord Jeff” mascot of Amherst College, and then offer some concluding thoughts.