Racism pervades our country. Students who have roiled college campuses from coast to coast have that exactly right.
But we’re never going to make the progress that we need to if they hurl the word “racist” as reflexively and indiscriminately as some of them do, in a frenzy of righteousness aimed at gagging speakers and strangling debate.
That’s a mechanism for shaming, not a strategy for change. It mesmerizes all. It converts none.
I’m thinking of the recent ugliness at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, which echoed too many other incidents at too many other schools.
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A white biology professor named Bret Weinstein who identifies himself as a political progressive infuriated many students there, for two principal reasons. One, he objected openly to a proposal that there be an “equity justification/explanation” for all new faculty hires. His stated worry was that race would take precedence over all other considerations.
Two, he challenged a change to an annual event at Evergreen called the Day of Absence. Typically, it invited students and faculty of color to leave campus for talks elsewhere about diversity, sensitivity and related issues. This year, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, organizers suggested that white students and faculty be the ones to depart instead.
Weinstein said in an email to an event organizer that he saw “a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and underappreciated roles” and that same group “encouraging another group to go away.”
“The first is a forceful call to consciousness,” he wrote. “The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.” He added that “on a college campus, one’s right to speak – or to be – must never be based on skin color.”
It was a reasonable perspective and a prompt for discussion, not fury. It drew fury nonetheless. Dozens of students interrupted one of his classes, screaming at him about racism, white privilege and even white supremacy. The campus police chief advised him, for his own safety, to steer clear of school grounds until tempers cooled. Students demanded that he and two other college employees whom they deemed insensitive to minorities be fired.
“Hey hey, ho ho, these racist teachers have got to go!” they chanted. When the college’s president, George Bridges, met with them, several of them pelted him with profanity and ordered him to shut up.
Evergreen is a famously liberal school. The protests there, like those at other colleges, didn’t involve a majority of students. They were informed by more than Weinstein’s words, including concerns that campus police officers were singling out black students and that Evergreen as a whole wasn’t responsive to minorities.
Weinstein, moreover, took quickly to the part of lightning rod. He has repeatedly characterized the Day of Absence as coercive, though it didn’t seem to be; Evergreen’s president, Bridges, told me in a telephone interview Thursday that it flat-out wasn’t. And in a video of Weinstein’s exchange with protesters outside his classroom, he proclaims, “History could pivot on this hallway right now.” It’s Olympia, Professor Weinstein, not Iwo Jima.
But that doesn’t diminish the significance of another bit of that video. Confronted with a loud barrage of questions, he asks the students, “Would you like to hear the answer or not?”
“No!” several shout. And there you have it. They’re not conducting an interrogation. They’re staging an inquisition.
Watching it, I flashed back to Yale two years ago and that awful moment, also captured on video, when one of the dozens of students encircling Nicholas Christakis, a professor there, shrieked at him: “You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!”
He and his wife, Erika, were masters at one of Yale’s residential colleges, and she had circulated an email in which she raised questions about the university’s caution against any Halloween costumes that might be seen as examples of cultural appropriation or hurtful stereotyping.
“American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience,” she wrote. “Increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all OK with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure?”
“Talk to each other,” she added. “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
Agree or disagree with her, she was teeing up precisely the kind of contest of ideas that higher education should be devoted to. And she did so, if you read the whole of her email, in a considered, respectful fashion.
No matter: She was pushing back at something – the costume guideline – that was draped in the garb of racial sensitivity. And that made her, ipso facto, an enemy of illumination and agent of hate.
She and her husband were driven from their roles in the residential college, though he still teaches at Yale. He posted several sympathetic tweets last week about Weinstein’s vilification. In one he wrote that his wife “spent her whole career” working with “marginalized populations” and has a “deep, abiding humanity.”
“But still they came for her,” he added.
Were the Yale students merely fueled by anger or were they high on it? What about those at Evergreen and other colleges?
Like plenty of adults across the political spectrum, they use slurs in lieu of arguments, looking for catharsis rather than constructive engagement. They ratchet up their language to a degree that weakens its currency for direr circumstances. And they undermine their goals – ourgoals – by pushing away good-hearted allies and handing ammunition to the very people who itch to dismiss them.
Right-wing media have had a field day with Evergreen, but not because they’ve faked a story. No, the story was given to them in ribbons and bows.
Evergreen’s campus was shut down Thursday and Friday following an anonymous telephone call threatening violence. Its exact relationship to the protests was unclear. Bridges has acceded to several of the protesters’ demands regarding a more equitable campus – and has thanked and praised them for their passion – but refused to fire Weinstein and two other designated offenders on their list.
I asked Bridges about the epithets hung on Weinstein. He said that such terms are being deployed too readily and casually.
“Using the word ‘racist' halts the conversation,” he said. “It just ends it. It doesn’t explore the beliefs, the values, the behaviors that comprise individuals.”
Isn’t he, too, being characterized as racist?
“Of course,” he said. “It’s just the way discourse goes these days.”
Of course? What a sad state of affairs. And what a retreat from anything that we could really call “discourse.”