Demands for racial justice do not equate intolerance
Opinion Column: Midweek Crisis
Students at the University of Missouri made history this week. On Monday, University President Timothy M. Wolfe announced his resignation, followed by Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, after pressure from students because of the administration’s lack of action to address the rampant racism on Missouri’s campus. A student group on campus called "Concerned Student 1950" — a reference to the year in which black students were first admitted to the University — created a list of demands for the University to take immediate action on behalf of minority students on campus, beginning with the removal of Wolfe from his position. Wolfe’s and the administration’s failure to address blatant and recurring acts of racism led to student protests that escalated last week when black members of the football team (with the support of their coaches) announced that they would refuse to participate in any athletic events until Wolfe was gone.
But rather than acknowledging the powerful implications of student organizing, there continues to be a sort of intellectually based disapproval of it — as it’s referred to in the title of a recent piece in The Atlantic, this “New Intolerance of Student Activism.” In the article (which does not directly refer to the recent incident at Missouri, but bear with me), Conor Friedersdorf essentially argues that recent student demands at Yale University to ban racially and culturally offensive Halloween costumes is proof of a generally misguided effort to censor dissenting views on college campuses across the country. Friedersdorf writes that the students’ assertions that racially based humor, aside from contributing to a larger structure of institutional racism, is also painful and takes a toll on their mental health: “One feels for these students. But if an email about Halloween costumes has them skipping class and suffering breakdowns, either they need help from mental-health professionals or they’ve been grievously ill-served by debilitating ideological notions they’ve acquired about what ought to cause them pain.”
While this sensitivity and respect for the mental health issues associated with racism is much appreciated, students are not actually breaking down over one faculty member’s poor response to addressing the issue of appropriation and racism in Halloween costumes. It should come as no surprise that the frustration with being ridiculed, ignored and disrespected on one’s own college campus builds up. It is not unreasonable for minority students to demand equal respect in an intellectual space that, yes, we are entitled to occupy.
So when students at the University of Missouri took direct action against an apathetic administration that consistently failed to do its part to create a safe environment on campus with zero tolerance for racism, they were not “driving out” an administration that they disagreed with. They were not making unreasonable demands out of a sense of self-interested entitlement. They were taking a powerful stand against a status quo that not only continues to fail people of color, but also normalizes white supremacist ideology by simply allowing it to exist without institutional criticism.
What seems to be a consistent thread in the widespread opposition to many forms of activism is the claim that these students are sheltered and entitled — that they don’t understand how to appreciate the democratic values upon which this country was founded. It’s very typical of liberals to turn this into a philosophical debate about protecting the principles of free expression instead of understanding how damaging it is for us to continue allowing racism to operate the way it does. Recent articles with titles like “Students at Yale, Missouri Beg College Administrators to Play Mommy and Daddy,” from reason.com and “Where are the Adults at Yale?” from Tablet Magazine illustrate the race-blindness of white liberals who, for some reason, cannot comprehend the importance of decency and respect for people of color.
The idea that ours is a post-racial society, where the more relevant concern is now the protection of our rights to offensive speech, is the reason we aren’t making any progress with respect to race relations in America. Why is upholding someone’s right to free expression by letting them choose to wear blackface on Halloween fundamentally more important than protecting the dignity and safety of an entire group of people?
And they call us entitled.
It should not be difficult to accept this issue for what it is: not a debate over constitutional rights, but at its most basic level, a demand for equality, respect and fairness that any person who is truly committed to racial justice should be able to stand behind.
Call millennials sheltered, call us entitled, call us idealistic — but direct action works, and we are a generation that is just as effective at organizing as the last one. Just yesterday, Chancellor of Rutgers—New Brunswick Richard L. Edwards announced the creation of a Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History. He wrote in an op-ed for The Daily Targum, “as some in the Rutgers community have pointed out in recent weeks, we must acknowledge that our history also includes some facts that we have ignored for too long, such as that our campus is built on land taken from the Lenni-Lenape and that a number of our founders and early benefactors were slave holders.” This committee would not have been created, and this narrative would not have even been explicitly acknowledged, if it were not for direct pressure on the administration from students who refuse to allow the whitewashing of Rutgers’ history.
Student power is absolutely critical to challenging the status quo, and radical change requires radical action. Whether they are student activists at Missouri, at Yale or here at Rutgers — understanding and solidarity is more constructive than condescension and criticism, especially when it comes to tackling racism. We would do well to learn from the University of Missouri students’ commitment to justice — after all, as Rutgers continually reminds us, we are revolutionary.
Sabah Abbasi is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and public health. Her column, “Midweek Crisis,” runs on alternate Wednesdays. She is the former Opinions Editor of The Daily Targum.