What Are the Risks of Students Working Things Out Themselves?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader suggests how racially-charged confrontations can not only escalate quickly but result in a disproportionate response towards people of a certain police profile:

Consider for a minute the controversy over the email Erika Christakis wrote at Yale regarding Halloween costumes: “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are hallmarks of a free and open society...”

This advice strikes me as remarkably detached from the realities young African Americans have grown up with. A discussion of an offensive costume that escalates into a confrontation can end badly, and the record of the American carceral culture gives African American students plenty of reason to believe the police will hold them responsible if it does. Conor Friedersdorf observes that what happens at Yale does not stay there, but the reverse holds also: 40 years of an expanding American carceral culture affects what happens at Yale.

Have any thoughts along these lines? Drop us an email. Update from a reader:

This is, really, not a good set of options presented by Christakis. Going up to a drunk person at a party and telling them you are offended by their costume is unlikely to lead to the sort of productive academic debate that defenders of these remarks seem to be envisioning. Indeed, when “be quiet, or raise your objections at the moment when they are most likely to get you dismissed as a killjoy” is presented as the free speech argument, it is unsurprising that students respond with little respect for the idea of free speech thus presented.