Racial Justice and Free Speech Are Not Mutually Exclusive

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Davis Stands with Ferguson
Protesters in Davis

By Dennis Parker

The recent wave of college demonstrations starting at the University of Missouri and Yale and spreading to Ithaca and other campuses across the nation have sparked outraged commentary. The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed called “Yale’s Little Robespierres,” and in National Review, David French described campus protestors as “revolutionaries, and the revolution they seek is nothing less than the overthrow of our constitutional republic, beginning with our universities.”

Largely missing from the outcry has been a discussion of the underlying issues that prompted the demonstrations in the first place. Instead, the demonstrations are caricatured in the media, conventional and social alike, as the result of hypersensitive, thin-skinned students of color, many of them highly privileged students, protesting minor provocations insisting that schools respond to their every whim. Stories about Jonathon Butler, the hunger striker supported by members of the University of Missouri’s football, focused on the fact that the graduate student came from a wealthy family, raising the question of whether you have to be black and poor to complain about entrenched racism.

Missing from the discussions is a willingness to confront the very real complaints of those students.  Those complaints include the fact that too often those schools, many of them segregated by law or practice until very recently in their histories, have failed to address the persistent reminders to students of color that they are not fully members of the college communities. Complaints that black students, in some instances, can expect to be subjected to emotional or physical harm because of their race or ethnicity, as evidenced by the death threats received by protesting students at the University of Missouri and elsewhere.

Far from being defenses of academic integrity and openness, those who dismiss the students only perpetuate a sad history of refusal to confront the continued existence of discrimination and inequality on campus. Recent articles, such as “The Coddling of the American Mind” in The Atlantic and other media, have described professors and students feeling so afraid that they will offend someone in class that they feel that the school has ceased to be a marketplace of ideas. Undoubtedly, some students are overly sensitive, but to equate this to the hurt and fear experienced by students and faculty called “nigger” at their colleges, or feeling that their presence is only reluctantly tolerated as shown by their small numbers and the sense that they don’t belong belittles the legitimate hurt which has its roots in the country’s long, sorry history of deliberate exclusion and subordination.

Ironically, the phrase “political correctness,” ostensibly invoked to promote free expression, is often actually the protest of being called to task for the first time for the consequences of previously unchallenged statements and conduct. Its purpose and effect is to belittle and demean the call for other people to recognize the humanity and feelings of others. Putting aside the too often forgotten fact that the First Amendment protects against state suppression of speech and assembly and not interactions between private citizens, the fact that you have the right to say something doesn’t mean you should. Sometimes healthy doses of humility and empathy are called for, values academic institutions should also foster.

For instance, one of the things that brought the situation to a boil at Yale was a reaction to a college e-mail urging that students to think before dressing up in possibly racist or offensive costumes. That call for consideration and civility was challenged as an unfair trammeling of the rights of students, as if the most fundamental request for decency was somehow a constitutional violation. Yale, let’s remember, is a private institution.

It would be tragic if the current discussion of the demonstrations failed to include a discussion of the underlying issues of discrimination and exclusion which remain rampant in our country.  I applaud those who speak in favor of speech that makes people uncomfortable, but I would remind them to remember that what is good for the goose applies equally to the gander. Let’s be willing to make the people who are most privileged and powerful uncomfortable. Let’s remember a fact wholly missing from the dialogue, which is that the law requires that students cannot be denied the opportunity to an education because of a hostile environment and consider that when we are discussing campus communities.

Let’s try to find a way to educate that includes everyone, and not just those who have been the historic beneficiaries of educational opportunities historically denied others.

Dennis Parks is the Director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program

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13 thoughts on “Racial Justice and Free Speech Are Not Mutually Exclusive”

  1. Frankly

    Sigh.

    People are sick and need therapy.  They cannot let go and move on.  The dependency of race victim and racial savior is a crumbling mountain of opportunity that they hold onto by fingers and toes.

    in some instances, can expect to be subjected to emotional or physical harm because of their race or ethnicity, as evidenced by the death threats received by protesting students at the University of Missouri and elsewhere.

    Where is the evidence of any physical harm?  There is none.  This lie alone destroys the credibility of the author.  And “death threats”.  One loony idiots posts on social media is evidence of “entrenched racism”?  And yet we are to discount the point about hypersensitivity?  Give me a break.

    Before the 1960s we had real material harm being done to people of color.  That was the basis for this country implementing civil rights legislation to ensure equal treatment under the law.  Those laws are in place and violators can be prosecuted, and are prosecuted, to the full extent of the law.

    What we are seeing now in these protests is a partnership of the twaddle of the hypersensitive bored and spoiled youth combined with politicians and ACLU attorneys exploiting it to make a good living.

    Frankly, (because I am) nothing… absolutely nothing that has occurred in at the University of Missouri warrants the actions and words contained with in the protest… and also does not warrant the level of media attention being given it.

      1. Frankly

        Why is it that everyone arguing in support of a modern racism narrative reverts to history as their proof?

        I’m part Irish.  Do I get to go back to claim victim status because of the abuse my people suffered fighting for independence from England?

        What is the statute of limitations?  100 years?  1000 years?  Never?

        I see your comment as validation of my points.

        Some people cannot let go of the past and move on even when their past problems are long gone.

        If the bad thing is no longer happening, then the problem is in the head of the people still living as if it is.

        1. Tia Will

          Frankly

          What is the statute of limitations?

          I don’t have an absolute answer, but I can say that it would certainly be more than 60 years.

          I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt here since it is possible that never having experienced it yourself, you may not know how one can be “materially” harmed without having a legal recourse and how this might affect not only the individual, but also their children and grandchildren who would grow up with and inherit less material wealth, but possibly more importantly, be less well socially connected.

          I will use the example of women in medicine since I know it well. About 40 years ago, OB/GYN  in this country was dominated by white men. It was one of the more lucrative specialties. At that time while the medical schools were just starting to bring in significant numbers of women and racial minorities, the higher levels of training where it is determined who will get the highest paying and most prestigious residencies, fellowships and partnerships were all controlled by white men. As late as 1983 when I was graduating from medical school women were still discouraged from seeking positions in the surgical subspecialties. As late as 1986, I was informed ( erroneously as it happened) that I might as well not apply for an Ob/Gyn residency on the west coast since I was a woman. This information was provided by someone who was sympathetic and thought he was helping me by guiding me to a more realistic course. After all, by then women were welcome in Family Practice and Pediatrics ( much lower paying specialties).

          Now you could certainly say “Why didn’t we just bring discrimination suits ?” The answer is simple. We couldn’t prove it. Many of the positions that were offered were actually based on personal interactions. Deals were made literally on the golf course amongst the golfing buddies who would invite the promising young men to play with  them to further refine who they were going to offer positions to. None of the women in my group or those who followed me were ever asked if they like to golf. No one was invited to play, and yet all of the men were. Only one of the men in my program declined…he played tennis with the attendings. My generation of women doctors starting breaking through this “country club” discrimination and it no longer affects women in many of the surgical specialties although there are still a few where women are under represented.

          The point is that discrimination having real economic consequences  can exist without those doing the discriminating being held accountable for that discrimination and in some cases, perhaps not even being aware of the full implications of their actions. After all what could be wrong about playing a round of golf on a Saturday with a young likable male colleague? My answer would be nothing at all unless that is where the decision to hire is made to the exclusion of the woman who is an equally good candidate, but who is never invited to the game.

           

           

           

  2. Anon

    “Recent articles, such as “The Coddling of the American Mind” in The Atlantic and other media, have described professors and students feeling so afraid that they will offend someone in class that they feel that the school has ceased to be a marketplace of ideas.”

    LOL  Yes, either a student of a conservative bent is afraid to voice his/her opinion in class headed by a liberal professor who hands them a bad grade if the student says something not politically correct (see http://www.campusreform.org/?ID=6770 ; http://dailysignal.com/2014/06/09/student-receive-bad-grade-college-paper-cited-heritage-foundation/  or conservative speakers are hounded off campus and never given a chance to speak (see http://articles.latimes.com/2013/may/19/opinion/la-oe-hassett-colleges-muzzle-conservatives-20130519).  No, universities do not promote the free marketplace of ideas anymore, only liberal politically correct ideas.  JMO, from experiences my children had at college.

    1. hpierce

      also, LOL… I’m on the liberal side of moderate, but in the early 70’s, dropped a Sociology class (UCD) because the lecturer was on the third std deviation to the left, and she made it clear that  I would not even get a “pass grade” if I didn’t buy her tripe hook line and sinker.  Fortunately, I was a liberal science major, so didn’t really care.

    2. Tia Will

      Anon

      The situation that you are describing may ( or may not be) more common on the left today. But remember that it was not so many years ago, 35 to be precise, that the shoe was often on the other foot. I was far to the left of most of my professors and was frequently cut off in class and not allowed to express my more liberal position. I am aware of only one situation in which I was given a lower grade because of my beliefs, but for me that was proof that the practice of stifling the point of view of others was not a monopoly of either side. (I know this was done, because he told me when I challenged my grade). Also, bear in mind where we are living. This area of California is clearly left of center. I suspect that in other areas of the country, the stifling might still be seen coming from the right.

      1. sisterhood

        My friend was getting a 4.0 at Oregon State. His last semester, he challenged one of his professors. He was getting an A in the class but wound up with a B after he spoke up in class. I believe he questioned the professor’s opinion re: an issue with the government in Central America. This was back in the 80’s.

      2. Anon

        To Tia: It doesn’t matter a whit which bias a professor has (altho these days it is more likely to be a left bias), the bias needs to be left at the entrance to the college.  Professors should be supporting the idea of free thinking, not shoving their own biases down the throats of students.  Nor should students be permitted to shout down speakers on campus, or control who cannot speak on campus because of ideology.

    1. wdf1

      Have you read up on what happened at Claremont McKenna that the story refers to?  Regarding Mary Spellman, administrator in question:

      Dean of students resigns after protests over racial issues at California college

      Student protesters had demanded her resignation amid complaints that her office wasn’t doing enough to deal with the concerns of students of color and others who felt marginalized.

      Last month, Spellman responded to a college newspaper piece by a Latina student discussing her concerns by saying that Spellman would work to help students who “don’t fit our CMC mold”.

      I think this administrator lacked a sense of appropriate customer service mentality to deserve staying on the job.
      What is your conservative spin on this story?

      1. Anon

        I think an apology from Spellman would have been appropriate, but I am not convinced her resignation was necessary.  As the student editorial alluded to, a group of students with a particular agenda are running the campus.  That is not acceptable in my book.

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