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.