Reporter's Notebook

Debating the Campus Protests at Mizzou, Yale, and Elsewhere
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Scroll down to find all the staff notes and reader reactions to the controversies over race and free speech on college campuses. (A similar debate on campus PC and mental health is here, spurred by our Sept ‘15 cover story.) Join the discussion via email.

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Last week MSNBC host, and former Congressman, Joe Scarborough seemed shocked that Princeton students would object to having numerous buildings on their campus named after president, and bigot, Woodrow Wilson.

I think there’s some room to debate over whether changing the names of buildings or taking down statues is an appropriate way to deal with institutions that have chosen to honor people like Wilson. The act of veneration says something about both the venerated and venerator. That Princeton once chose to plaster the name of an apologist for the Ku Klux Klan all over its campus should never be forgotten. I generally prefer some sort of contextualization, some way of making it absolutely clear who the honored figure was and why the institution honoring the figure chose to ignore it.

But I also attended a university where the concerns were somewhat different. I don’t really know how it feels to be a student at predominantly white school and see Wilson’s name everywhere. I suspect it can’t help but to increase one’s feeling of alienation.

Reasonable people can disagree about how to deal with the memorialization of Wilson. But they can not disagree, as Dylan Matthews points out, over who Woodrow Wilson actually was:

Leaving aside the broader question of whether Wilson's name should be removed, let's be clear on one thing: Woodrow Wilson was, in fact, a racist pig. He was a racist by current standards, and he was a racist by the standards of the 1910s, a period widely acknowledged by historians as the "nadir" of post–Civil War race relations in the United States.

As Matthews notes, Wilson was racist, not by the standards of our time, but by the standards of his own time. A defender of domestic terrorists, exhorter of the Lost Cause, Wilson actually resegregated the federal government. In regards to race, Wilson’s presidency does not represent more of the same, but an actual step backward.

Let us not be abstract here.

One of our new colleagues, Andrew McGill, takes stock of the increased college enrollment among American Africans (who constitute 13 percent of Americans nationwide; 15 percent between the ages of 20 and 24):

Since 1994, black enrollment has doubled at institutions that primarily grant associate degrees, including community colleges. In 2013, black students accounted for 16 percent of the student body there, versus 11 percent in 1994. Universities focusing on bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees also broadly saw gains, with blacks making up 14 percent of the population, compared to 11 percent in 1994.

But at top-tier universities, black undergraduate populations average 6 percent, a statistic that has remained largely flat for 20 years.

A reader emails a critique:

McGill rightly lauds the progress we’ve made increasing black enrollment in colleges in the last three or four decades. Stopping the more obvious kinds of bias keeping students out of university and offering a hand up to try and counteract some of the damage that institutional exclusion had caused was necessary and right.

After that he loses me, though.

A reader quotes an earlier one:

Either quotas need to be introduced (again) to keep Jews and Asians at their “rightful” level, or the disproportions need to be accepted as a natural outcome of a meritocracy where some groups outshine others … until the laggard groups somehow change their achievement levels.

This response to me is woefully ignorant of American history, where some groups (Jews and Asians) were given social privileges not provided to other groups. Jews and Asians were never politically segregated to the same degree as Black Americans (i.e. slavery, Jim Crow South, segregation, anti-Black housing policy, a criminal justice system that penalizes Blacks/Hispanics more than other races for similar crimes).

These differences in racialized experiences does not erase the discrimination faced by Jews and Asians in the American context. However, not all racialized experiences are the same. Communities with different racialized experiences, especially communities such as African/Black and Native/Indigenous/Aboriginal Americans, whose socio-political oppression built the foundation of the modern U.S., should not be compared with those whose oppression in this country is less entrenched.

As a non-American (South-Asian Canadian), I find the North American narrative of meritocracy to be very interesting.

A couple weeks ago, I published “The Illiberal Demands of the Amherst Uprising,” a look at the demands that student activists presented to their college president. In response, student activist Andrew Lindsay, Amherst College Class of 2016, writes:

To be a student of color at Amherst College oftentimes is to walk around without skin. It is to feel continuously vulnerable and naked to the elements. The stakes of being are higher than most. The erasure of our bodies and the homelessness that results takes its toll. This overexposure is all consuming and exhausting. “Why am I so vulnerable?”, “Is their no place for me?” — very little security against racial injury exists for minorities on college campuses. Without protection students feel invisible and strike out. They strike out through depression and social anxiety. They strike out through physical and social isolation. They feel like phantoms although they are continuously exposed to others.

Students hope to create spaces of mutual respect to reduce this feeling of homelessness.

The latest news in the ongoing saga of campus protests is yesterday’s resignation of Erika Christakis, the Yale lecturer whose Halloween email set in motion the major media narrative that merged with the Mizzou protests. This news provides a good excuse to take stock of the many unaired emails from Atlantic readers over the past few weeks. Here’s one quoting Sally Kohn’s recent piece:

“Indeed, what students from Yale to the University of Missouri and beyond are protesting is a pervasively one-sided definition of offensive behavior that these colleges and society in general still propagate.”

No. The students at Yale are protesting because a member of the staff [Christakis] had the poor judgment to suggest that students might be able to make more meaningful change, and grow more as human beings, by trying to resolve cultural differences through personal interaction rather than through top-down administrative action. Whether or not this belief is naive, it certainly doesn’t warrant physical threats, the loss of a job, or attempts to censor speech. The only one-sided standard being propagated is by the protesters.

Students at Missouri were protesting the unwillingness of the administration to treat claims of people saying mean/racial things as seriously as they might treat allegations of violent crimes like rape and assault. Their proposed remedies (the president should apologize for being a white man and resign, the school should hire disproportionately high numbers of black administrators, school should subsidize an expansion of “safe spaces” that allow minority students to nurse grievances unopposed, school should force indoctrination in “sensitivity” training designed exclusively by non whites, etc) are not the demands of some one seeking to tear down a double standard. They are the demands of those who desperately want a one-sided standard with which to bludgeon others.

Speaking of Missouri, here’s a reader addressing a recent piece from Adrienne on whether historically black colleges provide the “safe spaces” many students seek:

... but they appear less moved to ensure they serve as spaces that are inclusive for the students they work so hard to attract.

Exactly how was Mizzou not inclusive? No one ever provides any concrete examples. Heck, the student body president is a black gay man. The student body executive council is primarily black. The university has 600 different student organizations, including 27 that are categorized as “Minority.” I counted 14 different student groups that are for the direct benefit of black students only. And if a black student doesn’t see something he/she likes, they can start their own group. On the Mizzou website, there is a whole list of services and support information for black students only.

It seems that when people say “inclusive,” what they really mean is “a majority of people like me.”

Another reader gets literary:

There is historical (or rather, fictional) precedent to these current protests: Dostoevsky’s novel Demons. One glaring similarity is how the son of Stepan Verkhovensky, Pyotr, is far more radical than he is—much like how students today are seemingly more “progressive” than their professors (as evident at Yale). Stepan considers himself a good, liberal, enlightened man while Pyotr mocks him throughout the book for holding old views. Students are shouting down professors, spitting on those they disagree with, and demanding the resignations of those who do not fit their ideology. [Update: A reader provides solid pushback at the bottom of this note.]

This reader makes an appeal for perspective:

One thing that strikes me more than anything about these protests is the word “privilege.”

Students at Brown confronted the President. If you skip to the end I made her acknowledge that the work these students are doing is uncompensated labor. At first, she refused to even acknowledge that.

Posted by Martez Files on Thursday, December 3, 2015

Some strong and reasonable pushback from a young reader, Keiko Tsuboi:

It seems a majority of your emailers are very critical of the recent student movement. I am a current sophomore studying at the George Washington University. As one of these students supportive of the movement, I thought I could offer some perspective. One of your readers lamented:

The First Amendment, at its core, is a protection for unpopular ideas. The corollary to that is that one should never assume that someday your ideas won’t be the ones that are unpopular. Censorship is a dangerous game in a world where power and influence are ever-changing, and lasting change isn’t enforced—it’s persuaded, thoughtfully legislated when necessary, and a function of time. Forcing someone to be a “better person” by any standard doesn’t make them better. It just makes you an oppressor in your own right.

No one is arguing for the dismantling of the First Amendment. What I see is some readers reducing the valid criticisms lodged by student of colors to this tired narrative of pampered college students, safe spaces, and coddled minds. Worse, they view it as larger crusade against the First Amendment, or that students are violating the nobler artifices of higher educational institutions that the previous generations so valiantly protected.

What a grave persecution complex.