“When it comes to racism, America is a nation of cowards,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2009. “Certain subjects are off-limits and to explore them risks at best embarrassment, and at worst, the questioning of one’s character.” Oh how far we’ve gone since then. The long-awaited conversation is underway, and it’s turning into a monologue of conformity and head-hunting. Consider what has happened at the launch pad for this nation-wide tumult: the University of Missouri. A group called Concerned Student 1950 organized itself to counter what students say was years of insults shouted at African-American students by people at campus parties and on the streets. There was no attempt to dismiss or deny students’ accounts, but because former university President Tim Wolfe’s response did not satisfy students like Jonathan Butler Mr. Wolfe had to go. His well-intentioned departure was not enough. Students at Missouri followed it up with a list of demands for a “diversity” curriculum, “social justice centers,” and a “racial awareness and inclusion” curriculum that would be mandatory for all students, faculty, and staff. Missouri is one piece of this puzzle. Protests have sprung up everywhere from Yale to Claremont-McKenna to Ithaca centered around a two-tone tune: diversity and inclusion.
There is no denying that people are going to make stupid and insensitive remarks of the variety that riled students at Ithaca and elsewhere. Examples like a party flier or an offhand comment at a forum can be found. University administrators like Mary Spellman are not immune. The former Claremont McKenna dean was chased out of town over a clumsy response in an email. Censure is warranted, but resignation? No. As much as Mr. Wolfe and others would like to cater to student’s demands no dean or president has the power to control every sleight and slur students might experience on campus. But with their recurring demand for a diversity administrator the students seem to be inviting one that would. “I personally am tired of hearing that first amendment rights protect students,” Missouri student vice president Brenda Smith-Lezama on MSNBC, “when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here.” The definition of “hostile” and “unsafe” is left open, so is what to do about alleged microaggressors and bigots. The vote by Ithaca’s student senate offers one: an anonymous, online microaggression-reporting system that student senator Angela Pradhanto says will make the college a “safer, more inclusive and diverse community for all.” Do tell.
Student’s frustration over the mistreatment they say they are experiencing is understandable, but protestors are burning bridges with potential supporters by letting it guide them into taking over buildings, using hunger strikes, and demanding resignations to get their way. In an open letter 300 students at Claremont McKenna have said as much while describing protester’s tactics as “inappropriate” and “cyber-bullying.” Student protesters have moved beyond simple cries for justice into ringing demands for compliance, and their moves at Amherst College show just how much. Students put up posters that read ‘all lives matter’ and others critical of Missouri protestors. Student leaders at Amherst want those responsible to be found and forced to undergo “extensive training for racial and cultural competency.” And they’ve launched hunger strikes to get their way. The trouble for people caught in the middle is the existence of a ‘White Student Union’ Facebook page, from New York University among others, that will only ratchet up tensions. It turns out Eric Holder was right but for one thing; this isn’t a nation of cowards, it’s one filled with too many people on both sides eager to fight over race and too few willing to listen.