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Racism, Free Speech and the College Campus


As has been the case for as long as I can recall, an American college campus is once again embroiled in controversy over the expression of racism in its hallowed halls, and what it may seek to do in response.

This time the place is Bellarmine University, a Catholic college in Louisville, Kentucky, where, for the past several months, freshman Andrei Chira has been sporting an armband for “Blood and Honour”–a British-based neo-Nazi and skinhead-affiliated musical movement, that calls for “white pride” and white power.

Created originally as a magazine by Ian Stuart of the Hitler-worshipping and openly fascist band, Skrewdriver, the Blood and Honour “movement” promotes bands that sing about racial cleansing and the deportation, if not extermination, of blacks and Jews. Blood and Honour’s symbol, similar to the Nazi swastika, is that of the South African white supremacist movement, and is featured prominently on Chira’s armband.

Chira, for his part, seems more confused than dangerous. In the same breath he insists he is not a Nazi or neo-Nazi, but that he is a National Socialist (the term for which Nazi is shorthand). He insists he is not a white supremacist, a racist, or anti-Jewish, but he claims to be a follower of and supporter of the American National Socialist Movement (NSM), which calls for citizenship to be limited to non-Jewish, heterosexual whites, and praises Hitler on its website.

All of which raises the larger question, which is not so much whether or not Chira should have the freedom to be an ignorant lout, but rather, how did someone so incapable of evincing even a modicum of logic get admitted to a good college like Bellarmine in the first place? Are there no standards anymore?

Naturally, the debate has now begun to turn on the issue of free speech: Does the University have the right to sanction Chira or force him to remove the armband, or do his First Amendment rights trump concerns about the feelings of students of color, Jews (yes there are some at the Catholic school, both as students and professors), and others who take understandable offense and are made to feel unsafe by a neo-Nazi symbol?

It’s a tug-of-war that has divided American higher education for years, with some schools passing restrictive codes limiting language or symbols that express open racial or religious hostility, and others taking a more hands-off approach. Bellarmine has remained uncommitted to any particular course of action. The University President has spoken in defense of Chira’s free speech rights (and of the principle, more broadly), and has called for a committee to study the issue and determine what kind of policy the school should adopt to deal with hate speech.

Buzz around campus has been split between free speech absolutists on the one hand (who seem to predominate), and those concerned about the way in which racist symbols might intimidate and further marginalize already isolated students, faculty and staff of color, on the other. Faculty have sniped at one another from both sides of the issue, as have students, and a group of about a dozen students recently launched a sit-in outside the office of the Vice-President for Student Affairs, to insist on the inviolability of free speech rights.

As students prepare to return for the spring semester, there is little doubt but that the issue will dominate time and energy on the Bellarmine campus in months to come, and that how the school resolves the issue will come to inform other colleges with regard to their own hate speech policies. Having spoken recently at Bellarmine, and having met dozens of conscientious students and faculty there, concerned about addressing racism, I would like to take this opportunity to chime in, both regarding the existing free speech debate, and the larger (and I think more important) issue, which is how best to respond to racism, whether at a college or in society more broadly.

To be honest, I have never found the main arguments of either the free speech absolutists or those who support hate speech restrictions to be particularly persuasive.

On the one hand, the free speech folks ignore several examples of speech limitations that we live with everyday, and that most all of us would think legitimate. So, for example, we are not free to slander others, to print libelous information about others, to engage in false advertising, to harass others, to print and disseminate personal information about others (such as their confidential medical or financial records), to engage in speech that seeks to further a criminal conspiracy, to speak in a way that creates a hostile work environment (as with sexual harassment), to engage in plagiarized speech, or to lie under oath by way of dishonest speech. In other words, First Amendment absolutism is not only inconsistent with Constitutional jurisprudence; it is also a moral and practical absurdity, as these and other legitimate limitations make fairly apparent.

Secondly, the free speech rights of racists, by definition, must be balanced against the equal protection rights of those targeted by said speech. If people have the right to be educated or employed in non-hostile environments (and the courts and common sense both suggest they do), and if these rights extend to both public and private institutions (and they do), then to favor the free speech rights of racists, over and above the right to equal protection for their targets, is to trample the latter for the sake of the former. In other words, there is always a balance that must be struck, and an argument can be made that certain kinds of racist speech create such a hostile and intimidating environment that certain limits would be not only acceptable, but required, as a prerequisite for equal protection of the laws, and equal opportunity.

So, for example, face-to-face racist invective could be restricted, as could racist speech that carried with it the implied threat of violence. Whether or not a neo-Nazi symbol of a movement that celebrates Adolph Hitler qualifies in that regard, is the issue to be resolved; but certainly it should not be seen as obvious that any and all speech is protected, just because of the “right” to free speech in the abstract.

Not to mention, do we really believe that Bellarmine, a Catholic school, would allow (or that most of the free speech absolutists would insist that they should allow) students to attend class with t-shirts that read: “Hey Pope Benedict: Kiss my pro-choice Catholic ass!” or “My priest molested me and all I got from my diocese was this lousy t-shirt?” No doubt such shirts would be seen as disruptive, and precisely because they do not truly express a viewpoint or any substantive content, but rather, simply toss rhetorical grenades for the sake of shock value (likely part of Chira’s motivation too).

Chira’s armband, in that regard, is quite different than a research paper, dissertation, or even a speech given on a soapbox, or article written for his own newspaper, if he had one: namely, unlike these things, the armband is not a rebuttable argument, nor does it put forth a cogent position to which “more speech” can be the obvious solution. It provokes an emotional response only, and little else.

At the same time, the arguments of those who would move to ban hate speech have also typically fallen short of the mark, at least in my estimation.

To begin with, speech codes have always seemed the easy way out: the least costly, most self-righteous, but ultimately least effective way to address racism. First, such codes only target, by necessity, the most blatant forms of racism — the overtly hateful, bigoted and hostile forms of speech embodied in slurs or perhaps neo-Nazi symbolism — while leaving in place, also by necessity, the legality of more nuanced, high-minded, and ultimately more dangerous forms of racism. So racist books like The Bell Curve, which argues that blacks are genetically inferior to whites and Asians, obviously would not be banned under hate speech codes (nor should they be), but those racists who were too stupid to couch their biases in big words and footnotes would be singled out for attention: in which case, we’d be punishing not racism, per se, or even racist speech, but merely the inarticulate expression of the same.

In turn, this kind of policy would then create a false sense of security, as institutions came to believe they had really done something important, even as slicker forms of racism remained popular and unaddressed. Furthermore, such policies would also reinforce the false and dangerous notion that racism is limited to the blatant forms being circumscribed by statute, or that racists are all obvious and open advocates of fascism, rather than the oftentimes professional, respectable, and destructive leaders of our institutions: politicians, cops, and bosses, among others.

Secondly, hate speech codes reinforce the common tendency to view racism on the purely individual level — as a personality problem in need of adjustment, or at least censure — as opposed to an institutional arrangement, whereby colleges, workplaces and society at large manifest racial inequity of treatment and opportunity, often without any bigotry whatsoever.

So, for example, racial inequity in the job market is perpetuated not only, or even mostly by overt racism — though that too is still far too common — than by the workings of the “old boy’s network,” whereby mostly white, middle class and above, and male networks of friends, neighbors and associates pass along information about job openings to one another. And this they do, not because they seek to deliberately keep others out, but simply because those are the people they know, live around, and consider their friends. The result, of course, is that people of color and women of all colors remain locked out of full opportunity.

Likewise, students seeking to get into college are given standardized tests (bearing little relationship to academic ability), which are then used to determine in large measure where (or even if) they will go to college at all; this, despite the fact that these students have received profoundly unstandardized educations, have been exposed to unstandardized resources, unstandardized curricula, and have come from unstandardized and dramatically unequal backgrounds. As such, lower income students and students of color — who disproportionately come out on the short end of the resource stick — are prevented from obtaining true educational equity with their white and more affluent peers. And again, this would have nothing to do with overt bias, let alone the presence of neo-Nazis at the Educational Testing Service or in the admissions offices of any given school.

In other words, by focusing on the overt and obvious forms of racism, hate speech codes distract us from the structural and institutional changes necessary to truly address racism and white supremacy as larger social phenomena. And while one could argue that we could do both, the fact remains that doing the former almost by definition takes so much energy (if for no other reason than the time it takes to defend the effort from Constitutional challenges, and to keep from having a discussion of racism turned into a debate about liberty in the abstract) that getting around to the latter almost never follows in practice.

Perhaps most importantly, even to the extent we seek to focus on the overt manifestations of racism, putting our emphasis on ways to limit speech implies that there aren’t other ways to respond to overt bias that might be more effective and more creative, and engage members of the institution in a more thoroughgoing and important discussion about individual responsibilities to challenge bigotry.

So instead of banning racist armbands, how much better might it be to see thousands of Bellarmine students donning their own come spring: armbands saying things like: “Fuck Nazism,” “Fuck Racism,” or, for that matter, “Fuck You, Andrei” (hey free speech is free speech, after all).

That a lot of folks would be more offended by the word ‘fuck,’ both in this article and on an armband, than by the political message of Chira’s wardrobe accessory, of course, says a lot about what’s wrong in this culture, but that’s a different column for a different day. The point here is that such messages would be a good way to test how committed people at Bellarmine really are to free speech, and would also send a strong message that racism will be met and challenged en masse, and not just via anonymous emails.

In other words, if Chira is free to make people of color uncomfortable, then others are sure as shit free to do the same to him and others like him. Otherwise, freedom of speech becomes solely a shield for members of majority groups to hide behind, every time they seek to bash others.

Instead of banning hate speech, how much better might it be if everyone at Bellarmine who insists that they don’t agree with Chira, but only support his rights to free speech, isolated and ostracized him: refusing to speak to him, refusing to sit near him, refusing to associate with him in any way, shape or form. That too would be exercising free speech after all, since free speech also means the freedom not to speak, in this case, to a jackass like Andrei Chira.

Instead of banning hate speech, how much better might it be for Bellarmine University to institutionalize practices and policies intended to screen out fascist bottom-feeders like Chira in the first place? After all, Bellarmine, like any college can establish any number of requirements for students seeking to gain admission, or staff seeking to work at the school, or faculty desiring a teaching gig. In addition to scholarly credentials, why not require applicants — whether for student slots or jobs — to explain how they intend to further the cause of racial diversity and equity at Bellarmine?

And before I’m accused of advocating the larding up of the school’s mission with politically correct platitudes, perhaps it would be worth noting that these values are already part of Bellarmine’s Mission and Vision statements to begin with. To wit, the school’s Mission statement, which reads:

“Bellarmine University is an independent, Catholic university in the public interest, serving the region, the nation and the world by providing an educational environment of academic excellence and respect for the intrinsic value and dignity of each person. We foster international awareness in undergraduate and graduate programs in the liberal arts and professional studies where talented, diverse persons of all faiths and many ages, nations and cultures develop the intellectual, moral and professional competencies for lifelong learning, leadership, service to others, careers, and responsible, values-based, caring lives.”

And this, from the school’s Vision statement:

“Bellarmine University aspires to be the innovative, premier independent Catholic liberal arts university in Kentucky and the region for preparing diverse persons to become dynamic leaders to serve, live and work in a changing, global community.”

In other words, the school’s entire purpose is consistent with the search for diversity and equity, and entirely inconsistent with the racism and Nazism of persons like Chira. So why shouldn’t the school seek to ensure that only persons who adhere to, buy into, and are prepared to further the purpose of the institution itself, are admitted or hired to work there? Once there, individuals may indeed have free speech rights that protect even their most obnoxious of views, but that says nothing about the ability of the school to take steps that will make it much harder for such individuals to enter the institution to begin with.

Making a proven commitment to antiracist values a prerequisite for entry (and perhaps requiring some form of training in these issues or antiracist service project in order to graduate or receive tenure or promotion) would go far towards operationalizing the college’s lofty (but thusfar mostly impotent) mission, and would make controversies such as the present one far less frequent or relevant.

If Bellarmine is serious about stamping out racism, it is this kind of institutional change — which would both limit the presence of racists and increase the numbers of people of color and white antiracist allies, by definition — which they should adopt. No more platitudes, no more promises, and no more unnecessary debates about free speech. Create an antiracist culture from the get-go, by expanding affirmative action, diversifying the curricula, and using admissions and hiring criteria that sends a clear signal: namely, you may have free speech, but so do we; and we are exercising ours to tell you that you are not welcome here.

Sadly, perhaps the most important missing ingredient in the struggle to uproot racism, is white outrage: not at those who challenge racism (oh we’ve plenty of anger for them, typically), but rather, at those who are white like us, and whose racism we listen to with amusement, more so than indignation.

So, for example, notice how the free speech supporters wax eloquent about the importance of upholding Chira’s right to be a racist prick, but they evince almost no hostility towards he and his message, beyond the obligatory throw-away line: “I completely reject his views, but will fight for his right to express them.” In other words, they are far more worked up about the possibility (however slight it appears to be) that the Administration may sanction the Nazi, than they are about the fact that there is a Nazi on their campus in the first place. Which brings up the question: does Nazism not bother them that much? Or have they confused the valid concept of free speech with the completely invalid notion that one shouldn’t even condemn racists, out of some misplaced fealty to their rights (which notion of course relinquishes ones own right to speak back, and forcefully, to assholes like Chira)?

I long for the day when whites will get as angry at one of our number supporting bigotry and genocidal political movements, as we do at those who denounce the bigots and suggest that the right of students of color to be educated in a non-hostile environment is just as important as the right to spout putrid inanities.

What’s more, I long for the day when whites stage sit-ins to demand a more diverse and equitable college environment for students of color (which currently is threatened by rollbacks of affirmative action, for example), just as quickly as we stage them to defend the right of free speech, which, at Bellarmine at least, shows no signs of being endangered, so quick has the Administration been to defend Chira’s liberties.

In the final analysis, when whites take it upon ourselves to make racists and Nazis like Chira feel unwelcome at our colleges and in our workplaces, by virtue of making clear our own views in opposition to them, all talk of hate speech codes will become superfluous. Where anti-racists are consistent, persistent, and uncompromising, and where anti-racist principles are woven into the fabric of our institutions, there will be no need to worry about people like Chira any longer.

Tim Wise is an essayist, activist and father, He is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull: 2005) and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He can be reached at [email protected] and his website is www.timwise.org

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