A Columbia Professor's Critique of Campus Politics

John McWhorter argues that an influential minority of college students are misusing concepts like safe spaces and white supremacy as performative cudgels––and that administrators and faculty members ought to do more to teach them the errors of their ways.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

For years, Columbia University Professor John McWhorter and Brown University Professor Glenn Loury have conducted frank public conversations on Bloggingheads.tv where they puzzle through issues facing the United States in real time. Both are original thinkers with heterodox views. I’ve watched them slowly refine their positions on campus activism and identity, sometimes invoking their own experiences as black intellectuals and their respective pasts as black college students.

So I attended with interest Thursday when Professor McWhorter expounded on his views at length during an appearance with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. Both men believe something has gone wrong on college campuses––that a strain of illiberalism advanced by a vocal minority of students  is ascendant; that it is substantively wrong; and that most administrators and faculty are averse to speaking up.

What follows is a condensed version of Professor McWhorter’s remarks, drawn from his answers to multiple questions that focused on illiberal attacks on campus speech:

I think the spark for the current situation is perhaps more mundane than we'd like to think. I don't think that for some reason everybody went crazy. I don't think it's because of the president we happen to have in office. I think it's social media. Social media, especially when you have it in your pocket in the form of the iPhone, allows bubbles of consensus to come together such that you can whip people up in a way that was not possible a generation before, or even ten years before.

It's not only about words but about pictures. And that is more viscerally stirring than pamphlets or that thing called the physical newspaper in the past. And so I think it's inevitable that with the rise of social media you would have this assault on free speech on campus, in the same way that I don't think there would have been a Tea Party if it weren't for Twitter and Facebook. I don't think that it was Obama as the key factor. I think it was the fact that that kind of sentiment could be whipped up to such an extent by these toys that, it's easy to forget what it was like when they didn't exist.

It's what scares me, because social media is not going away.

On Safe Spaces

By no means are all of the protesters black or Latino students. White students are gathering in equal measure ... There is a performative recruitment of metaphor going on here. And so the idea is to say, "We need a safe space from this kind of abuse." Now, that starts out as meaning, “we might go somewhere where we feel more comfortable with one another.”

Then the idea becomes that we physicalize this notion of safe space and start asking white people to leave, or for example, at was it Oberlin? Where the black students had safe spaces designated all over campus where they could be safe from the incessant racism aimed at them by whites.

I think anybody in their more sober moments understands that even though racism exists and microaggressions are real, college campuses are perhaps the least racist spots on earth. And the idea that any student is undergoing a constant litany of constant racist abuse is theater, it's theatrical––you hate to say that to somebody 19 years old, but it's not true.

To say that we need a safe space and then to physicalize it, you're expecting people to allow you a place to be shielded from all of this abuse that you claim is happening; that’s the kind of performance that I think students are being supported in because––and this is a good thing––we live in a society in which, in contrast to the way it was two generations ago, it's considered extremely incorrect or even immoral to be a racist or a sexist, among a certain educated segment of the public, which is not tiny.

That's not all of America. But it's at the point where to be a racist, for example, is almost equivalent to being a pedophile. That's good in many ways.

And this new movement takes the idea that you're supposed to show you're not a racist or be sniffing out incidents of racism to give yourself a sense of legitimacy in society, into a place where language is being abused. And then when a speaker gets to campus, the idea is not that you protest the speaker, which was the idea when I was in college in the 80s, but that the speaker is not allowed to pollute the space with their words. Again, that is interesting, but it is theater. It's almost like Brecht when people are doing things like this. This is not the way usual socio-politics happens.

And it needs to be called out, I think. And that's tough! Because we're talking about the behavior of people who are under 22. But it serves no purpose, as I think we've been able to see.

It starts with sense.

The idea that words are not always mere words comes to the fore in the mid-80s with radical feminist arguments from people like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. And there was value in the argument that we need to check the sorts of things that we say to each other, and that might go beyond a single short checklist of epithets. But you can take it too far if words are violence simply because you don't agree with them or find them slightly noxious. That's where free speech winds up being choked…

On the Purpose of College

I grew up as a fact-brat of sorts, and I remember asking my mother when I was around nine what the point of college was. Even at that age I thought some people leave after high school, then some people go to this thing called college, and even then it looked sort of free-wheeling from what I could see. And I asked her once what is the point of that extra four years. She said the difference is not necessarily that people who have graduated from college have learned more facts, but that they have learned that life is complex, and that any issue worth talking about is one where easy conclusions are elusive––that the answer is not one where you're going to be able to just snap your fingers and say, okay, that works out.

You acquire a sense of horizons.

And I've learned that is dead on. What college is about is partly career preparation, although that's a whole different conversation; partly that you learn who the fifteenth president was, James Buchanan; but then you're supposed to learn that there's many different ways of looking at life in this world and that the ones you've been trained to think are evil might not be.

When I was in college in the eighties Republicans were thought of as ridiculous. I remember living in a hall at one point and there were Republicans down at the end. And you were supposed to think of them as some sort of vermin. Nobody questioned this. It was during the Reagan era. And I couldn't help noticing that they were also some of the nicest people on the hallway. Over the years I learned that I was not a Republican, but I could see how you could be one and have a coherent worldview.

And it happened from listening to them and eating lunch with them. And now they're in my swimming pools! That is an experience that I don't think students are having as much these days. That means education is failing them. They're thinking life is much simpler than it is. They're not learning how to think …

On White Privilege

The whole white privilege paradigm is very interesting because I think it should be part of an education for students to learn that there is something, and I'll title it white privilege, that's fine. These are things that must be considered, such that a student wouldn't look at a disadvantaged part of the city and just say, "Well what's wrong with them?" The idea is to understand that a lot of what the person sees is that people start out at different places––and that whiteness is a privilege. However, our problem once again these days is that it is being taken in a direction that is less constructive. The idea is not people can learn that there is white privilege and be considered to have learned it, and learn some other things.

The idea is you are to learn that you're a privileged white person; you are to learn it over and over; really what you're supposed to learn is to feel guilty about it; and to express that on a regular basis, understanding that at no point in your lifetime will you ever be a morally legitimate person, because you have this privilege. It becomes a kind of Christian teaching, and it seems to serve a certain purpose––I have to say this, I hope it doesn't hurt anybody's feelings. For white people, it is a great way to show that you understand racism is real. For black people and Latino people, it is a great way to assuage how bad a self-image a race can have after hundreds of years of torture. I can't speak for Latinos there, but certainly for black Americans. It ends up being a kind of a security blanket.

I don't think that either one of those things takes students anywhere. To be a black student who learns that their purpose, that something special about them, is that they can make a loud noise and make white people guilty, I don't think that's an education. And quite honestly, if a white person is constantly attesting to their privilege, constantly attesting that they still have things to learn, and not ever specifying what more it is that they have to learn, the idea that is somehow constructive, I suggest that be reexamined.

White privilege is something that you can learn, and know, and that's it. Now, I feel that life only gets so good in complex societies of human beings. A lot of what we're talking about is a political vision which is highly idealist. There's an argument for it. I have heard it articulately defended. But it is hardly the only way to look at how a society can be. We're losing that kind of flexibility in the way that we talk about things on college campuses…

On the Term “White Supremacy”

My little theme today has been that this is a fringe minority view. However, it is this spinning buzzsaw blade that normal people want to avoid.

And so it silences people.

But I hear from the occasional person who doesn't like my views on things like this. Students who don't like my views on things like this. Most people are not mean or confrontational, I don't have anyone coming to yell at me in my office. They just would never take my courses. But when I do hear from somebody who doesn't like my views on things like this, what I'm called is a white supremacist. I am a white supremacist aligned with people like Bull Connor. That's me. Of course, that is an utterly athletic, recreational use of the term. You could go through everything that I've written for twenty years, and you would find nothing that advocated anything somebody twenty years ago would have regarded as white supremacist. So it's being used as a battering ram. And battering rams are big, and crude. Think about something on the Flintstones.

And we're being taught that is higher wisdom. It simply isn't. So this needs to be called out. I don't care who calls me names, but to the extent that on college campuses students are becoming this unquestioning people who think issues are easier than they are, something needs to be said more loudly than just people like Frank Bruni and I writing editorials.

But college administrators and many college professors are quite craven about this sort of thing. Even if you have tenure, to have students in your class hating you is tough. I've had a tiny little dose of it and you really have to pull your stomach in.

On a Better Way

Here's an illustrative anecdote of how it actually could be.

Trump week, after he was elected, was alarming on university campuses. It was the worst week at Columbia I ever had. Every second student was in tears for days. And I wasn't prepared to say “you're all cry babies.” There were a lot of people with very legitimate concerns, many Latino students who were worried about immigration issues. It was a nasty time. And I walked into my introduction to linguistics class, 150 students, and so many people were crying, so many heads were down on their desks, that my teaching assistant came over and said Professor McWhorter, I don't think you're going to be able to teach today. It's been requested that you conduct a session with the students about what is going on.

And that was true. There was no way that I was going to talk about intransitive verbs that day. But I did get up and I told them, you know what, you may have been told by a lot of your other professors that what you need to take from what happened this week is that the country is full of racists, and you should hate all the people out there. And I said, I'm not going to give you that. I've known a lot of the sorts of people who have voted for Trump. And they're not racists in any sense of the word that makes sense to people who are using language properly. I said what we're going to use this session for is talking about why these people voted this way. And we're not going to call them racist, we're going figure out what led to them voting for someone like this and how we can keep it from happening again.

The students liked that.

I was not revolted against for doing that. I'm not trying to make myself a hero. I'm sure there were other professors who did that. But that needs to be the model.

On the Core of the Problem

The idea that I disagree with you and that makes you a bad person, that might not be new. Because people were having that on the Upper West Side during Nixon, for example. It wasn't just, I disagree with you about Nixon. It was, you're a bad person. I think that now, more specifically, the problem is, “you're a bad person and you should not speak,” that's what is new.

Today the idea is that you walk out of the room, you can't hear it, because the space isn't safe. That's a theatrical gesture. It should be used for auditions.

That's what the problem is, I think.

It's certainly true that if you're born white you have a greater chance at success than if you are born black. It doesn't mean that being born black is a sentence to poverty and despair. It doesn't mean that there aren't a great many white people who are suffering. But the whole white privilege idea, it used to be called societal racism or institutional racism. The term started to weaken so we now say white privilege because it grabs people more by the collar.

So I'll use it. White privilege is real.

The issue is that it shouldn't be used as something to shut down conversation, to inculcate unreligious people with a new sense of original sin.

That is what I think has happened.

And so I am thinking of this ordinary college student who is throughly intelligent but doesn't want to have her head ripped off, who just keeps quiet. I can't tell her speak up and get your head ripped off and get called a racist and buck up. I think it's these other students whose behavior needs to change.