Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Sticks and Stones and Woodrow Wilson and Black Tape

By Michael Dorf

My latest Verdict column uses the ongoing deliberations at Princeton over whether to remove Woodrow Wilson's name and likeness from various places of honor at that university as an opportunity to discuss the general question: When, if ever, should a record of what is now recognized as evil warrant name changes? I develop some qualitative criteria for evaulation of that question, which I regard as difficult in most of the contexts in which it is now being raised at Princeton, Yale (regarding Calhoun College), Harvard (regarding the Royall family coat of arms in the law school seal), and elsewhere. But I reject easy solutions because I think there undoubtedly are both circumstances in which the right call is to remove and other circumstances in which the right call is to leave the name, statue, or other form of recognition in place. In the latter cases, however, I say that there is an obligation to acknowledge and disavow the tainted elements of the legacy (as Mount Vernon does with respect to George Washington's relation to slavery).

Here I want to offer a hypothesis about what we are seeing in the developing campus movement, and continue to push back against some aspects of the emerging counter-narrative, which views the movement as stifling free speech due to oversensitivity and counter-productively encouraging a victim mentality. Consider the new column and this post a follow-up to my immediately prior Verdict column and two prior posts (here and here) on the protest movement.

One of the more sensitive examples of the counter-narrative is a recent NY Times op-ed by Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy. Discussing the recent incident at HLS in which someone (identity still unknown) placed black tape over the faces on the pictures of most of the African American faculty in the corridor of one of the HLS buildings, Kennedy worries that such relatively isolated incidents are one-off events that do not reflect widespread sentiment. He also worries that African American and other minority students who deem such incidents indicative of a broader hostile culture thereby "harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization."

Is Kennedy right about victimization? There is no doubt that people from all walks of life and of all political views sometimes do claim victim status when it is inappropriate or counterproductive. (War on Christmas anyone?) But in the current circumstances, Kennedy's worry about an inflated sense of victimization makes sense only if, in fact, the protesters have inflated their sense of victimization. And whether that's true depends on Kennedy's first claim--that incidents like the taping over the portraits at Harvard or the email regarding Halloween costumes at Yale really are isolated incidents that should be simply shrugged off.

I'll first try to put the point for Kennedy's position as strongly as possible. We have come a very long way. Less than a century ago, African Americans were lynched at a rate of over 60 per year. Although a handful of African Americans attended Harvard and other elite universities even in the 19th century if they were among the most extraordinarily talented people alive, it was not until the late 1960s that such universities began to enroll African American students in substantial numbers. Compared to the prospect of outright denial of admission or murder based on race, surely minority students today have it pretty good.

Right? Well, yes and no. People of color--and especially African Americans--are subject to substantially higher risks of arrest and violence at the hands of police than are other people, and that fact is not irrelevant to the campus protests. As I noted in my previous Verdict column, the campus activism at the University of Missouri was led by veterans of the Missouri-sparked Black Lives Matter movement. And as Professor Kennedy notes in his op-ed, one of the complaints of the protesters at Harvard is that "campus police officers . . . subject black students to a more intensive level of surveillance than white students." Kennedy appears to acknowledge that this particular complaint has "a ring of validity."

What of the fact that valid complaints are mixed in with some contestable ones, such as complaints about the coverage choices of some professors? Is that a sign of over-sensitivity?

It's hard to tell. As anyone who has ever witnessed or participated in a protest movement knows, there is a tendency for some people in the group to expand their complaints beyond the uncontested core. But it would be unfair to dismiss a movement as a whole simply because of this phenomenon. Students raising serious complaints about harassment by campus police, for example, should not be marginalized because some of the complaints of others associated with the same broad movement go too far.

Moreover, I'm not sure that Professor Kennedy is right to see even overt racism as a marginalized phenomenon. It is a peculiar fact of our current era that even as colleges worry about triggering sensitive students with difficult topics, the Internet is awash with the harshest possible rhetoric, including racism. Comments on this blog are almost always respectful, even when the commenter expresses strong disagreement, but that is hardly typical. I'm not talking just about websites run by the Klan or neo-Nazis. The opportunity to post anonymous comments on mainstream websites allows people who hold racist and other hateful views to give vent to those views online, even if they would keep quiet in public.

There might even be a causal connection between hate-speech and cruel speech on the Internet, on the one hand, and complaints about insensitivity of a lesser order on campus, on the other. Professor Kennedy suggests that today's students are sensitive to slights that, in years past, would have gone unnoticed because there were so many more serious problems to address. In this view, students focus on microaggressions because they no longer have to deal with macroaggressions.

But what if that is backwards? What if the macroaggressions that students encounter online make them more sensitive to microaggressions in real life? Some of the counter-narrative that has been offered against the ongoing campus protests takes issue with the demand for "safe space," questioning whether students who will some day take their place as leaders in business, government, academia, and beyond should be treated as such delicate flowers that they can't handle a little adversity. "Suck it up" is the not-so-veiled sub-text of this counter-narrative. Maybe that's good advice, but maybe it unfairly assumes that minority students face aggression of only the micro variety.


Joe said...

Colleges should be in certain ways safer harbors than general society but one thing there is that just as people say "get over it" to some person who complains about alleged racial slights, perhaps the complaints should be "gotten over."

It's somewhat different but at times I'm annoyed at the strident nature of comments in certain blogs, sometimes because of my general style of trying to hedge things at times. At times, it seems like if I don't call a person a monster almost, it is assumed by someone I'm defending the person. Ditto on protecting some right.

But, I understand the people are coming from a place where the rights are really being violated & their sensitivity and ability to express themselves has value & is understandable. So, I take that into consideration. At some point, it does get a bit much, but I understand where they are coming from. And, how a comment online is just that. It isn't a grand thing and even if they are wrong, it isn't THAT important.

Maybe the "get over it" -- in proper degrees -- at times is a general message for people to take into consideration. And, as you say, even if individual complaints are a bit much, they are not just imagining things or something. Part of the problem of racism, sexism etc. is that we cannot simply trust and take things at face value. We at times might overcompensate. It's a lesson in itself.

David Ricardo said...

This post and the previous one by Mr. Buchanan highlight one of the biggest flaws in the American character. It’s not that we “can’t handle the truth”, it’s that we cannot handle ambiguity. The typical American wants its political leaders and other public figures to be all good or all bad.

And since that typical American cannot intellectually process ambiguity the result is veneration or hatred towards public figures. Hilary Clinton is either a courageous visionary or the devil incarnate. Ronald Reagan is either one of the great Presidents or one of the worst. Those who support Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Ted Cruz simply ignore the lies and distortions that those candidate proffer. Those who admire Bill Clinton simply exorcise his personal transgressions from the record. The result is a polarized electorate, a divided nation and a population that refuses to understand or accept that the other side may have some redeeming values and that tolerance and compromise is necessary in a large and diverse country.

The racism of Woodrow Wilson is not a newly revealed secret, it has been known since the late 19th century. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, a fact that has been known since the 18th century. Of course all of us would condemn a viscous racist who said the following.

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone”

Oh, wait a minute. That is not a KKK leader, those are the remarks of Abraham Lincoln. Pretty ugly remarks from the mouth of one of the greatest champions of freedom the world has ever known. Shall we remove Lincoln from public veneration, should we take his name off of everything or should we educate the populace about who he was, what he did, how he acted, what he said and what his faults were, allowing each of us to make his or her own evaluation of the man.

The inability to deal with ambiguity, the lack of recognizing that no one is perfect, this increasing polarization is creating a nation that cannot be governed effectively. If allowed to continue it will ultimately create a permanent division of the nation. And no, there is not equal blame here. The conservative factions, because their positions are largely faith based rather than fact based bear the brunt of the fault.

Joe said...

Granting the ambiguity point, there are shades of bad -- that fits into the perspective tone of the last comment -- putting aside even that comment by Lincoln is a bit of political spin on his part, all that he did for blacks can be compared to Wilson, who even in his time, was more racist than others. Also, recognizing Wilson as a key player at Princeton would be somewhat different than naming a local bridge in a Southern city with a large black population after the leading racist.

Shag from Brookline said...

David's "ambiguity" theme does not, in my view, address the issues raised by this post, although David makes many useful points. Yes, nobody's perfect. We all have various forms of biases that we should address (I'm thinking of the hermeneutical circle), but many of us don't. That's not necessarily ambiguity. The majority often fears the "Other." People of color have readily served as the convenient "Other" for many whites in serving as the majority. But at times in America's history we have had whites on whites as the "Other." Recall the "dark whites" immigrants from the Mediterranean as the "Other" for Anglo-Saxon white majorities. Assimilation via marriage eliminated, to a great extent, this bias. It seems there is always some the "Other" for the majority to rail against. Is it human nature, a matter of genes, culture, environment, whatever, or ambiguity that results in reactions to the "Other"? I have some views, which may demonstrate my biases, something I have to work out for myself at times when I may have to personally face them. Others may be similarly situated at times, whether in the majority or as part of the "Other." Views on superiority may be ambiguous, even - or especially - when challenged. Reactions of majorities to such challenges take various forms. Consider the current political xenophobia by presidential candidates seeking to lead America. Is this ambiguity or intentional efforts politically to gang up on the "Other" du jour? And how ambiguous are the followers drinking the political "Kool Ade"? What was it the late Walt Kelly's Pogo said about "the enemy"?

Aaron Jordan said...

I really like your point about racism on the seeping into the student's reflections on the real world. Students are more likely to be exposed to this bile than adults, and thus may be more sensitive to microagressions.

I would add though that all of this coverage is creating the perception among those outside the university sphere that all students are delicate flowers offended by even the tiniest things. In the Con Law course that I TA, students have read horrible and racist things but been able to discuss the legal issues with thought, logic, and sensitivity. Sensitive students are not the norm, they are a (growing) exception.

Shag from Brookline said...

This morning in making my Internet rounds, I got to Barbara Ehrenreich's "America to Working Class Whites: Drop Dead!" at TomDispatch. As I got into it, this post came to mind. Economics plays a large part in the majority's concerns with the "Other." Is equality a losing sum game for some in the majority? (The article goes beyond a recent statistic, so don't be put off by its title.)

In physics, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. But the "equal" part does not apply to the subject of this post: escalation results, defensively and offensively. At some point reason may set in. But when? For many there will always be some the "Other." But this should not stop questioning of past injustices (including by protests) and putting them in perspective.