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Racism, Free Speech and the College Campus Part 2


Recently, I published an essay concerning racism on college campuses and the issue of free speech. The commentary was prompted by news that Andrei Chira, a freshman at Bellarmine University, in Louisville, has been wearing a neo-Nazi armband around the school for the better part of the Fall semester.

In the body of the piece, which, if you haven’t read it, can be found here (http://www.lipmagazine.org/~timwise/freespeech.html), I sought to do three things.

First, I wanted to present the facts of the case at Bellarmine, and describe the conflict between those who oppose any limits to free expression, and those who feel certain types of hateful speech may be so intimidating to students of color (as an isolated and small minority), that certain limits might be acceptable, in the form of restrictive hate speech codes.

Secondly, I sought to examine the free speech issue, ultimately noting that I find neither the arguments of the free speech absolutists, nor the hate speech code advocates entirely persuasive.

To the free speech absolutists, I pointed out that there are many forms of speech limits we live with, and virtually all support (bans on harassment, libel, slander, perjury, plagiarism, etc). Furthermore, I tried to explain that rights always must be balanced (in this case, free speech and the First Amendment against equal protection and the Fourteenth), so that certain types of speech, such as one-one-one racist invective or speech that carries an implied threat of violence can obviously be restricted without running afoul of personal liberties we rightly wish to protect.

To those advocating speech code restrictions, I pointed out that such efforts are cheap, easy, but ultimately not the best way to fight racism. First, they reduce racism to interpersonal conflict (rather than an institutional problem reinforced by power imbalances), and encourage the belief that racism is only to be found at the extremes: manifested by those who use racial slurs or wear Nazi symbols, for example. Passing such restrictions allows institutional elites to think they’ve done something, even when, in truth, the most pernicious (and often more subtle) forms of racism persist: old boy’s networks that determine hiring, or unequal educational resources that constrain higher ed access to begin with.

And finally, I sought to present an alternative to either hate speech restrictions or merely doing nothing. Specifically, I noted that if Chira has free speech, and has the right to offend and make persons of color uncomfortable, then so too do others. As such, Bellarmine students should exercise their free speech, by wearing anti-racist, anti-Nazi, or even anti-Andrei Chira armbands. Likewise, they should refuse to speak to him or associate with him in any way (after all, free speech also means the freedom not to speak). Lastly, Bellarmine should operationalize their mission and vision statements (both of which stress the importance of cultural diversity and human dignity in a global environment), by requiring persons seeking to attend school or work there to demonstrate a commitment to racial equity and justice in order to enter the institution, or once there, to graduate, or be promoted, receive tenure, etc.

To these suggestions, and indeed, the entire piece, I received many responses, most of which were favorable, but some of which seemed to have missed my point altogether. Several apparently thought I had called for speech restrictions, and proceeded to lecture me about the slippery slope that might follow such mandates. Since most of my readers are fairly liberal or left to begin with, these typically sounded the alarm that communists or anarchists might be next–prohibited from expressing their views because they would offend others.

Of course, in point of fact, I had not endorsed speech codes or restrictions on hate speech (except in the fairly obvious cases of one-on-one harassment or invective, which no rational person would want to defend, and speech that includes a threat of violence). I did not take a position as to what should happen with Andre Chira, in terms of his right to wear the armband, and generally, to be a racist ass. If anything, my endorsement of alternatives to speech codes at the end of the piece suggests I am not a fan of speech restrictions, even if I reject the absolutists’ claims about slippery slopes as horribly simplistic.

Among the litany of responses I received, however, one stood out for its depth of thought, its well argued counterpoint to my own position, and the desire on the part of the author to engage the issues from the perspective of how best to address racism, which, after all, is really the point here. As such, and despite disagreeing with her position, I felt it would be useful to give voice to her concerns, and then explain why I feel that my suggestions in the original piece remain valid.

The person who took issue with my original article, made several arguments, which roughly can be synthesized to the following:

1. Andrei Chira is young, clueless and insecure, and like many such persons, looking for scapegoats and an identity for his own unexamined rage;

2. Although this hardly excuses his actions, it suggests he is in need of education, not ostracism, as I recommended, or the donning of armbands directed at him personally, or hostility more generally. After all, to further marginalize him (in his own mind at least) and to shame him for his views, might only generate more of the hostility and rage that animated his original gravitation to neo-Nazism, and thereby make his racism worse; and finally,

3. For Bellarmine (or other schools) to restrict access to people like Chira in the first place (by making a commitment to equity and diversity a qualification for admission) would only prevent racists from being exposed to alternative ways of thinking, thereby allowing them to remain ignorant, and thus, more dangerous to the society at large.

Because the person penning this response was making a heartfelt (and I would say quite reasonable) argument about what is, and is not, the best way to fight racism, it is important to engage her concerns. After all, if my suggestions would, on balance, make things worse, then obviously as a committed antiracist activist, I would want to rethink them. But having thought about the concerns expressed above, I feel there are a multitude of problems with the “educate don’t ostracize” position being put forth by the person in question.

[Patience and Education at Whose Expense?]

To begin with, even as we acknowledge that persons like Chira suffer from a profound ignorance, and that it is important for such persons to have that ignorance challenged with wisdom, this truism yet begs the question: At who’s expense should Chira’s education come?

So, for example, should Chira’s need for a guiding and patient hand to help him work through his rage, stupidity or whatever, be thought of as more important than — or even equally as important as — the right of students, staff and faculty of color to be able to work and go to school in environments free from overt forms of racist hostility? In other words, even to the extent we agree that it would be best — all things equal — for us to re-educate Chira and not ostracize him or shame him, to what extent should persons of color be expected to bear the weight of this re-education process?

I have long agreed that it is important for those of us who are white to be patient and even forgiving towards other whites (and ourselves) for falling into racist patterns of thought: after all, everything in our culture encourages exactly that direction. But there is a difference between exhibiting that patience and forgiveness, when the only person from whom it requires sacrifice is oneself, and, on the other hand, demanding that same patience and forgiveness from others–in this case, the targets of Chira’s racism. Asking folks of color at Bellarmine to suffer fools (whether gladly or not), and to put their own feelings of insecurity and even danger on the back burner while we caring white folks try to fix one of our lost flock — one who attends classes with them, after all, and who lives in their dorms — well, that seems like a bit much to me.

This is made all the more true by the possibility — and even likelihood — that if folks like Chira are allowed to spout racism and avoid ostracism when they do so, out of concern for not shaming him into being an even bigger jackass, people of color at schools like Bellarmine may leave the institution, unsure that whites there are really concerned about their safety or fears about racism. Alternately, other folks of color may refuse to apply, enroll or attend at all. Thus, our heartfelt efforts to educate Chira and not drive him out (or others like him), would likely result in an even smaller number and percentage of people of color attending mostly white schools, thereby sacrificing their educational access and opportunities for the sake of his. That such a result would be exactly the goal of white supremacists — less black and brown folks around — shouldn’t be lost on us here, and the irony of obtaining an institutionally racist result, even as we try and cure one individual of his own personal racism, should give anyone pause who thinks that this would be the best direction in which we should move.

[Saving Individual Racists or Reducing Institutional Racism?]

As for the suggestion that adopting an antiracist criteria of sorts for admission to the University, or for obtaining a job there would result in merely “preaching to the choir,” while leaving racists to their own devices, unlikely to be exposed to the healing balm of higher learning (a legitimate concern expressed by the individual who wrote to me), there are a few shortcomings with regard to this argument.

First, such a criteria or screening process (or requirement that graduating or receiving tenure requires antiracist training or some form of service project) would, almost by definition, boost the numbers and percentages of folks of color on the campus. After all, such persons are likely to have firm commitments to diversity and equity, and to have given serious thought as to how to move such goals forward. In other words, by definition, such a criteria would result in a diminution of white campus hegemony, and thus, again, by definition, result in a reduction in institutional racism and white supremacy.

What this suggests, is that even if screening out racists removed one more opportunity to educate them, as individuals, away from racism (a fair and essentially true proposition), such screening would at the same time guarantee a reduction in institutional racism, which surely must rank as a more impactful problem, in both quantitative and qualitative terms. So that even if one accepts as true the concern expressed above, one could still rightly conclude that it is more important to reduce institutional inequity and racism at a given college, than to ensure that one individual person is able to matriculate there, and perhaps become a better person in the process.

Additionally, such a screening process or antiracist requirement would increase the numbers of antiracist white allies on the campus, as opposed to either racist whites or those who’ve never given the subject much thought or concern. This, in turn, would produce something of an incubator for developing antiracist strategies, in this case in Louisville, but potentially elsewhere too. Such an environment would allow for the development of a stronger cadre of antiracists, and as such, might be seen as more than balancing out whatever lost opportunities obtain vis-a-vis people like Chira. Again, is it more important to “save” Chira, or to develop a setting in which antiracist whites (or those willing to become antiracists) can grow, learn and become better allies to people of color?

[The Difference Between Hate Speech and Mere Ignorance]

While it is absolutely vital to provide the antiracist counterweight and balance to whatever racism people like Chira are ingesting, the question of where and when such weight needs to be provided — and at what point it’s simply too late to prioritize this goal, however otherwise valid it may be — remains on the table.

Perhaps if the racism in question were of the standard, garden-variety type (or even of the relatively highbrow pseudo-scientific brand, which can nonetheless be answered by better science), providing that counterweight might not be too much of a burden or threat to people of color. But when we’re talking about racism of the vicious, Hitler-worshipping type, in which there is no cogent argument being made, beyond “whites are the master race,” blacks are “mud-people,” and Jews should be exterminated, it’s hard to believe that a college either can, or should be expected, to turn one back from the precipice of their own hateful psychological abyss.

At the very least, if we conclude that free speech requires the school and its community members to indulge such sickness, we certainly should not also take away their power to shame the hater, ridicule him, or make him feel like the unacceptable outcast he is. Again, the question is not about Chira’s rights alone, but also the rights of others at the school to exercise their free speech to isolate him, and make clear their own revulsion at his views, until he either stops acting out, or leaves.

It is worth noting here that Chira’s particular form of racist speech — the brandishing of a neo-Nazi symbol — or certain other forms, like the use of overt racial slurs, are all quite different from some of the milder, albeit offensive kinds of racist discourse that typically takes place on campuses, and which can best be addressed by way of re-education efforts.

So, for example, every year it seems as though at least one (and usually several) colleges have a “blackface incident,” in which ignorant white kids smear greasepaint on their faces so as to appear black. Each time, the perpetrators find this stunt — the viciously racist history of which they know nothing at all (because of course we don’t teach about those kinds of things in school) — to be hilarious, even an example of bonding with their several “black friends.” (Seriously, this was said by several members of the Stetson University women’s softball team, in Deland, Florida this fall, when they dressed up like black basketball players).**

As infuriating as such displays of stupidity are, it can be fairly said that in almost every case, those engaged in the act are truly, purely ignorant; this, as opposed to persons who identify openly with Hitlerism. Even if one doesn’t fully understand the vagaries of National Socialism — what it means, what it meant, and what was done in its name — it is simply not conceivable that anyone who had reached the age of eighteen would not be aware of the basic core of ideas being endorsed by embracing its symbols. And surely one would have to know how flaunting such a symbol would make someone feel who was black, or Jewish, for example.

So while it is likely that an otherwise non-bigoted person whose ignorance led them to don blackface or commit some similarly asinine act of micro-level racism, could be changed for the better by educational efforts aimed at filling in the gaps in their knowledge, the neo-Nazi is not merely ignorant. Chira may say that his identification with National Socialism is merely because of his support for national health care and a good forestry program (yes, he does say this), but if we believe him, we are stupider than he is. To the extent he says such a thing he is both a liar and a racist–both of which rise to the level of character flaws serious enough to justify his being ostracized and vilified by any and everyone on the Bellarmine campus.

[The Value of Scorn and Rebuke]

It’s also worth noting that, on occasion, being stigmatized really does work to change behavior, if not one’s core feelings and beliefs. Most people, for good or bad, tend to conform to strongly held and communicated social norms, and even bend their behavior to fit these norms. While we may lament conformity in many cases — indeed, in many areas of life we desperately need people to be more questioning of socially accepted “norms” of behavior — in the sense that most people conform to reigning in overt manifestations of racist bigotry (something they wouldn’t have done even forty years ago), conformity can only be seen as a blessing. If institutions send a clear message that bigots will be seen and treated as freaks and rejects — friendless, and undeserving of understanding or compassion until they cease engaging in the behavior that is so injurious to others — many persons so ostracized would indeed change their ways. Granted, they might remain every bit as racist internally, but they will be inclined to keep things to themselves, which, after all, is really the primary thing the victims of racism care about.

Which raises the next question: namely, is a person who so cavalierly dismisses the feelings of others — such that they would outwardly identify with a movement that endorses the oppression and even extermination of entire groups of people — already such an anti-social personality that they are beyond the point of being transformed solely by exposure to an especially good sociology professor? Or at least, might they be so abnormally wired so as to make such a conversion experience exceedingly difficult, and surely more of a project than any college can be expected to undertake on its own?

If Chira would not change once isolated and scorned — and especially if he would become even more belligerent in this instance — we can only conclude that he is so severely anti-social as to be incapable of being reached through pretty persuasion as well. If Chira is not an antisocial personality, he will care what others think and may indeed be inclined to change when challenged and made clear that his views make him a pariah. If he is an antisocial personality, such that he doesn’t care what others think (or even enjoys upsetting people in this way) then he is not likely to change or grow in response to patiently dispensed education, any more than the schoolyard bully is likely to alter behavior because someone sits him down and tells him that there are better ways to deal with anger than by fighting.

[Conclusion: The Importance of Choosing Sides]

At the end of the day, schools have a right, and more, an obligation to define their missions and operationalize those missions in the policies, practices and procedures they employ. In fact, a failure to define one’s mission clearly, and then hew policies to that mission invites the devolution of higher ed to little more than a business, whose mission becomes getting higher and higher marks in the U.S. News college rankings, and thereby bringing in more alumni contributions, government research contracts, and elite students. Too often schools develop lofty missions but then do nothing to make those missions real in practice: so they preach diversity, equity, and even social justice, but ignore those concepts in their day-to-day operations. As such, they end up with people like Andrei Chira, on occasion: people who have never seen the mission, been asked about it, or been forced to explain — as a condition of their acceptance — how they would further it, or if they even cared about it at all.

And yes, this means that schools would have the right to define their missions as the training of the next generation of capitalists, or to evangelize the world with their own brands of Christianity, and to keep out those who didn’t agree with those missions, but so what? At least they would have to be open about those values, in which case those of us not wishing to be investment bankers or body snatched and drafted into Jesus’ army would be able to steer clear of such places.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the “educate him, don’t ostracize him” approach is that it prioritizes Chira’s needs and interests over those of others: others who have done nothing wrong, quite unlike Chira. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews, and queer students are also at the University for their personal and intellectual growth, every bit as much as Chira. They attend college so they can be nurtured, learn new things, and have old ways of thinking challenged on any number of subjects, as with Chira. To defer to Andrei Chira’s need for growth and exposure to truth, and to prioritize that need, even at the expense of running off folks of color, Jews and gay and lesbian folks from the campus, is to suggest that he is more entitled to a Bellarmine education than they are. Surely this is neither the message we hope to send, nor the choice we wish to make, when it comes time, as it so often does, to choose sides.

**As a side note, part of the “punishment” for those involved in the blackface incident at Stestson, was to read and write a reaction to my memoir, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. While I am always grateful for exposure to my thoughts in the book, and while reading the book may indeed assist the personal growth of those made to read it, I also like it when people read White Like Me of their own free will. So, if you haven’t had a chance to do so yet, please, by all means pick up a copy, and don’t wait around until you do something really stupid and are forced into it!

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Keep track of Tim Wise’s lecture schedule and new commentaries, at www.timwise.org

Check out Tim’s books, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White at a bookstore near you, or online at Amazon.com

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