'Hiring Out' to Understand the White Working Class

A black medical student’s critique of selective colleges

Sandy Macys / AP

After I wrote about last week’s protest at Middlebury College, one of my most thoughtful email correspondents, Brown University medical school student Ronald Ray Magee Jr., wrote in with a different perspective.

As a staunch proponent of free speech and cross-ideological dialogue, he objected, along with so many others, to the protesters who prevented Charles Murray from speaking (and hoped for the speedy recovery of the injured professor). But he also argued that the rationale students offered for bringing Murray to campus––that some wanted to understand the white working class voters who supported Donald Trump––highlights a failure of diversity at the institution. What if Middlebury, a residential college where students are meant to learn partly by living together, could get more of those insights from within its community?

He writes:

I do not support the violent actions demonstrated by a contingent of the protesters last week; they were wholly unjustified and likely inimical to the interests of those most marginalized by the views of individuals like Dr. Charles Murray. As a Black man educated in predominantly white spaces, the value of free speech and engagement with opposing or even hostile views is already known to me. My mission in life is to aid my race in ameliorating the deep and painful scars of years of oppression; much of the little progress I or others around me have made towards that end has been won in moments when we reach across the proverbial aisle in an effort to understand and hopefully change the views of those who would seek to perpetuate a history of harm against my color. It can be frustrating, isolating, and sometimes just plain dark, but my experience so far has been that the gain is worth the pain.

After much reflection on the shutting down of Dr. Murray at Middlebury, taking the events on their own terms and in continuity with similar occurrences on campuses throughout the nation, my position is that the stance against shutting down speakers like Dr. Murray and for engagement with even the most noxious ideas is still the right one.

But it is a stance that Middlebury and most of higher education in this nation lacks the moral authority to make.

The narrative pushed by a lot of detractors of this protest and others like it is reducible to this: if elite college liberals are unwilling to engage with such-and-such highly public and highly controversial figure, then they risk remaining an echo chamber and their education will be the poorer for it.

Those should not be the only two options.

Middlebury should not have to hire out to find someone who can speak with them about the white working class or conservative ideals; there are quite a few people who bear one or both of those labels and I imagine that a number of them may even want to go to college. Yet I look at Middlebury and I see an institution where, according to the New York Times, 23% of the student population comes from families in the top 1% of American earners.

I see an institution where the free exchange of ideas and benefits of academic debate has an entrance fee of about $61K. I see an institution ranked as "most selective" by U.S. News and World Report, based in large part on test scores that do more to reflect a student's income or ethnicity than their intelligence level or capacity for success, especially if they are afforded the resources available at an institution with the financial endowment of Middlebury.

Taken together, it is pretty clear that the environment of free debate at Middlebury is actually tightly walled off to certain populations for reasons that have much less to do with the quality of their ideas or capacity for debate than with the lack of dollars in their pocket. And I imagine many, if not most, at the school would agree with me. Some of the facts I mention above are from an excellent editorial on the school's challenges regarding socioeconomic diversity, published in The Middlebury Campus in January of this year. But it is not enough to agree; the perilously high economic barrier to pursuing higher education represents a threat to both free speech and the ideals of justice and equality themselves on college campuses.

On one level, this barrier represents a direct extension of historical injustices. When the high tuition and over-reliance on standardized testing that clearly favors those with resources meet our society's longstanding racial wealth gap and rising income inequality, the result is too many students left unable to gain admission or matriculate for reasons that have less to do with merit and more to do with our historical amnesia; these students are silenced just as effectively as Dr. Murray was silenced last week, if not more so since few of them will go on to write bestselling books. In the face of this, it is important to remember Dr. King's assertion that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". Those are not mere words; it is incredibly difficult for a university to make an appeal to students based on the lofty values of free speech and exchange of ideas when it is abundantly clear that much of their academic experience is decided on the basis of far lowlier concerns.

On a deeper level, if the only time college students come into contact with those that disagree with their most strongly held views is when they are debating those very same views, I do not anticipate many gains in understanding on either side. At the end of the day, engaging with Dr. Murray or anyone who thinks like him on one occasion to discuss all the reasons you disagree is insufficient to gain true understanding; that sense of perspective comes when the two of you both make an intentional decision to participate in the hundreds of different interactions in nearly as many contexts that form the work of community-building.

College can be a vessel for those sorts of interactions, but we will have to work to make it so.

Dr. Murray was invited to Middlebury, at least in part, so that the campus could refute his views on the connection between race/socioeconomic status and intelligence. Yet, if Dr. Murray were provided with a demographic snapshot of Middlebury,  he would find much there to support his views. This is my plea to Middlebury and any other institution struggling with how to balance a respect for free speech with a respect for the lived experience of the marginalized: Do not just make the argument; be the argument.

I’m grateful to my correspondent for sharing his radical critique, which I’ve been pondering since I first read it, without having decided quite where I come down myself.