This morning I caught the headline of an op-ed in the Bee by Ben Boychuk, “Protests by self-absorbed students are out of control.” After reading the op-ed, it is easy to criticize the actions of inexperienced activists who are exerting their voices for the first time, but I disagree with the notion that American university life today “is divorced from real life.”
If anything, these growing campus movements, awkward as they may be at times, are evidence of the contrary. For years, probably dating back to the free speech and Vietnam war protests and increasingly since the abolition of affirmative action and particularly since the great recession has led to an even more expensive college education system, colleges have in a very real way become the last vestiges of privilege and elitism in the country – socioeconomic as much as racial.
What I see are not “self-absorbed” students, but rather a group of young people who, recognizing their own privilege, are actually fighting for others. What sticks out in my mind is the line from Bob Dylan’s “The Times They A-Changing”: “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land and don’t criticize what you can’t understand…”
The millennials may finally finish what the Baby Boomers started in terms of the path to racial equality.
There is a notion that real racism is gone. And if by “real racism” we mean the old Jim Crow style of segregation and discrimination coupled with the belief of racial inferiority of non-white groups, that is largely true.
On the other hand, there are those like Michelle Alexander that believe that we have simply transformed the racial hierarchical system from one that overtly discriminates to one that discriminates through a series of institutional apparatuses that are just as real as the old Jim Crow system.
What is rather remarkable is that this system is really being attacked on multiple fronts simultaneously. Already we have seen a pushback against mass incarceration, where blacks and Hispanics have become trapped in a system of laws that do not let people out.
The problem is not that we should not incarcerate people who break laws, but rather that we need to differentiate between serious offenses that require removing people from society and other transgressions for which there are alternative forms of treatment, whether it is a restorative approach, as we are starting to see in many locales including Yolo County’s Neighborhood Courts, or substance abuse treatment.
We also need to figure out a way to make a single crime not turn into a lifelong punishment, through exclusion of felons from jobs, voting, public assistance and the like. The problem is once we trap people into this cycle, the 70 percent recidivism rate shows it is extremely difficult to break free.
We also see this problem in the distribution of wealth, vestiges of biased hiring practices, and even school suspension and expulsion rates. None of these practices are overtly intending racial discrimination but they have a discriminatory effect.
This past year we have seen a focus on police-involved shootings and killings, along with traffic stops. The Black Lives Matter movement comes directly out of these series of incidents. There have been some interesting pushbacks here. Some pressure has led to more scrutiny on police, the need for police oversight and body cameras.
On the other hand, there has been a counter-offensive that the scrutiny on police has led to a so-called Ferguson effect, which has led police to back off enforcement in so-called high crime neighborhoods. FBI Director James Comey recently caught the Administration and Justice Department off guard when he said that “additional scrutiny and criticism of police officers in the wake of highly publicized episodes of police brutality may have led to an increase in violent crime in some cities as officers have become less aggressive.”
The administration pushed back, arguing that the existence of a violent crime wave is not supported by statistics, even while acknowledging rates are up in some major cities.
“We can’t have a situation in which a big chunk of the population feels like maybe the system isn’t working as well for them,” President Obama said.
“Most of the time I got a ticket, I deserved it. But there were times when I didn’t,” the President said. “There are a lot of African Americans who have that same kind of story. The data shows this is not an aberration. There’s some racial bias in the system.”
Instead of acknowledging that there is racial bias in the system and understanding that some racial bias undermines the legitimacy of the entire system, we have seen pushback. Those raising the alarm are now being blamed for problems that have existed in the system for some time.
There was an interesting op-ed in the New York Times last week from former NYPD Captain Eric Adams.
He wrote, “Years ago, a group of men walked into a Harlem bar with bats and hatchet handles. Moments later, they’d left their calling card: broken bones and fractured skulls. This wasn’t a robbery, but restitution. Earlier in the day, a young patrol officer had been attacked by unruly patrons of the bar. This cop’s off-duty brothers in arms made sure to give anyone there a strong ‘attitude adjustment.’”
He wrote that, for many years “this was the world in which our nation’s police agencies operated. What happened in the darkness of inner-city streets was between the police and whoever was on the other side of the nightstick and, on occasion, a gun. The police reports all read the same: The suspect had a shiny object, he reached for something, he forced me to act in self-defense.”
This is no longer the world of the police now, where any civilian “with a smartphone can now document a true account of a police encounter. Every time police officers take action, they should assume they’re being recorded.”
He added, “Some officers resent and fear the idea of being second-guessed. But as a former officer myself, I recognize this as discomfort at being scrutinized at all. There is anger in police departments across the country among officers who feel betrayed by a public that gained by the old-school tactics. But the problem is that the profession is not adapting fast enough.”
This is really what is happening across the board. The world is changing, the old ways are not cutting it and, for years and for some time, the universities thought they were immune. The end of affirmative action gave many an excuse to no longer fight for diversity. Budget cuts gave the university officials the excuse to raise tuition, even as top administrators were making mid to high six-figure salaries and there was an assumption that the chickens would never come home to roost.
The students have found that they possess far more power now than they used to. Part of it is their ability to mobilize using modern technology – smartphones, videos, and social media have torn down walls that have separated the elite from the masses for far too long.
Like many with new-found power, some are not wielding it in the best way or attacking the right problem. However, too many are misunderstanding what is actually happening here.
I was reading some of the comments to the Bee article, “These aren’t protests they’re temper-tantrums and the media, driven by a left-wing agenda, are to blame.” And another, “The same people who have been peddling the ridiculous liberal agenda are now being attacked by the little monsters they created. It’s going to be hilarious in a few years when these kids are in the workforce and nobody cares about their feelings.”
But they don’t get it. They don’t see the difference between the college professors and the students. They are criticizing “what they don’t understand.” There is not only a generational difference but also traditional cleavages in the left between those with privilege and those without. This is really no different than the 1960s.
The college professors are not reaping what they sow, so much as realizing that the privileged world that they lived in is starting to crumble. Like the police force, the college university needs to understand that the world is changing and adapt, and the problem is that they are not adapting fast enough.
What I think is baffling to some is that the push is not just coming from the underprivileged. It was Jonathan Butler whose hunger strike at the University of Missouri led to the resignation of both the Chancellor and the President.
“A lot of people know how corrupt the system is, and they thought I was going to die from Day 1. From the moment I made my announcement, people thought I was a dead man walking,” he told CNN.
He said he felt motivated to act because of his experiences at the University of Missouri.
“I felt unsafe since the moment I stepped on this campus,” he told CNN. “My first semester here, I had someone write the n-word on my wall. I’ve been, physically, in altercations with white gentleman on campus.”
As it turned out, Mr. Butler comes from a wealthy family, but as Snopes.com points out, “While it’s true that Butler’s family is wealthy, Butler did not obfuscate that fact by claiming to be ‘just a poor kid,’ nor is that information relevant to the grievances that inspired his hunger strike. Butler was one of a number of students involved in an ongoing racial controversy at Mizzou, which involved open hostility towards black students and not complaints over ‘white privilege.’ The net worth of Butler or his family was largely irrelevant to the issues of race and racism that sparked protests by Butler and others.”
Some people over the last several months have lamented the polarization in American society. I believe that polarization was there all along. When racial issues were kept under wraps, it seemed that things were better than they really were. These issues have been bubbling beneath the surface for some time and we need to be able to have reasoned discussions about ways forward – the status quo is not going to work anymore and the only real question is what will the new world look like.
—David M. Greenwald reporting