Campus Activism and Competing Racial Narratives

How student activism reinforces academic freedom.
By Peter Halewood

It has been a volatile year on American college campuses when it comes to matters of race. Large student protests against racist incidents, closely watched by national media, roiled the University of Missouri and Yale University campuses. At the University of Missouri and Ithaca College, protests resulted in the resignation of university presidents. Yale and Princeton Universities, among others, were forced to consider renaming buildings and programs that bear the names of historical figures associated with racism and white supremacy and were pushed to increase racial diversity among students and faculty. Many other institutions were similarly rocked by campus protests as students demanded better administrative responses to racist incidents and a lack of diversity.

Critics have derided these campus activists as coddled “crybullies” who demand political correctness and safe spaces without regard for freedom of speech. Some have said that the activists’ positions on the issues stem from having grown up in a culture where children feel entitled to succeed without effort and where parents and teachers strive to remove all obstacles to children’s comfort. That criticism is an easy and perhaps unfair caricature of millennials and, as others have suggested, is probably not typical of most children, especially children of color. The fact that much of this year’s activism has been aimed at campus racism should make faculty committed to justice and equality not only listen to but also actually hear what the students are telling us.

To a certain extent, the current wave of activism reflects young people’s impatience with a society that fundamentally misunderstands (or ignores) systemic racism in education, in the school-to-prison pipeline, in the documented, disproportionate use of discipline and punishment against black children in our schools. Many, though by no means all, of the students active on campus racial issues are students of color, and many have demonstrated considerable “grit” already in having negotiated the system and entered higher education. Ultimately, the students are demanding that higher education live up to its promise to be fair and inclusive, to educate the public, and to offer solutions.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the presence of students of color in higher education should not still be contested. Assertions that students of color in the United States have been coddled or pampered are belied by well-documented patterns of poverty, persistent housing segregation, disproportionate policing of communities of color, police killings of unarmed black men, mass incarceration, racist incidents on campuses, and general racial bias in education. Faculty ought to embrace student activism addressing these problems and learn from our students— they are reinforcing our own critiques of the corporatization that is undermining higher education as a common good.

New Student Activism

Some critics see student activists as abandoning robust debate and free expression in favor of maintaining self-esteem or comfort. But this view overlooks our collective historical failure to root out white supremacy and systemic racism on our campuses, in all their complex institutional manifestations, and unfairly reduces student positions to assertions of grievance. As a middle-aged, white, male law professor, I myself have struggled with the apparent conflict between free expression and antiracism in these debates. But instead of wagging our fingers at student activists, we ought to engage in a more comprehensive analysis of structural racism in higher education.

My son (who identifies as black or mixed race) was a first-year student at one of the campuses at the forefront of student activism over the past year. I followed the events on his campus as would any concerned parent. But I also brought to my observations my own experience as a parent of black sons to whom I have had to deliver “the talk”—a painful, personal reminder that my sons do not experience the world from the same privileged vantage point that I do and that the world does not accord them the benefit of racelessness. In addition, as a legal academic who studies race and the law, I am well aware of the ways the law can reinforce structural racism, something from which colleges and universities are not immune.

The campus race debates take place on complicated and contested terrain. The Supreme Court, in its ruling last summer in the second Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case, handed a narrow victory to advocates of affirmative action in college admissions. In September, Georgetown University formally apologized for its slave-owning past, announcing plans to rename campus buildings for former slaves owned by Georgetown and to offer their descendants admissions preferences, albeit without scholarships, similar to those of children of alumni. By some measures, diversity is increasing on many campuses. But the discourse of diversity is an impoverished one that often focuses on how white students benefit from exposure to the diverse perspectives offered by students of color. Deeper questions of remedying past racial injustices, of reparations or substantive equality, are left untouched in this soft quest for a corporatized “cultural competence.”

Lost in the past year’s media condemnations of purportedly coddled students is the fact that students were not protesting about hurt feelings; they were protesting against systemic racism. Students of color continue to be routinely subjected to institutional and structural discrimination on our nation’s campuses. Racist fraternity chants and Halloween costumes, assertions that affirmative action makes students of color undeserving of a place on campus, college buildings named after famous slave owners and white supremacists, faculty members who expect minority students to represent their racial or ethnic group in class discussions—any of these could be seen as an obstacle to learning that is potentially subject to antidiscrimination law. The lingering issues of racial injustice and inequality need to be addressed, and student activism around these issues, some of it gaining significant national and international media attention in the last year, has done just that.

But campus organizing and advocacy against racial injustice and inequality have been to a large extent mischaracterized as primarily about restricting free expression. Some of this mischaracterization is attributable to attempts to mock, marginalize, and trivialize progressive advocacy, but some of it stems from misunderstandings about and exaggeration of some of the language of the new activism, specifically terms like trigger warnings, microaggressions, and safe spaces.

A recent letter from the dean of the undergraduate college at the University of Chicago to incoming students illustrates the backlash against “political correctness.” The dean warned students that the university is committed to free expression and would not provide “trigger warnings or intellectual safe spaces.” (In fact, Chicago does provide “safe spaces,” and according to the university’s website the dean himself is associated with the LGBT safe space.) The letter was cheered by some as an overdue defense of robust campus debate but decried by others as a cynical attempt to “brand” the University of Chicago as a principled opponent of political correctness at a time when donors nationwide are pulling back because of a perception that colleges are coddling students at the expense of free inquiry and expression. As a matter of academic freedom, the university cannot decree that professors will not provide trigger warnings—faculty ought to be able to choose whether to employ them, as the AAUP has said. One commentator pointed out that the dean’s letter amounted to a meta–trigger warning: that there will be no trigger warnings at the University of Chicago. A student correctly observed that the dean mischaracterized safe spaces, which refer literally to spaces safe for otherwise embattled minorities to engage in self-support, not to classrooms or “intellectual” safe spaces.

Similarly, critics have claimed that attempts to raise awareness about microaggressions are merely another assault on free expression by those with insufficient fortitude to withstand honest and free exchange of views. But the incessant daily drumbeat of “small racisms” can be exhausting for students of color and can seriously impede their capacity to focus on learning, their core right and responsibility as students. So-called microaggressions are part of systemic racism, and asking colleges and universities to mitigate them ought not to be characterized as a sign that today’s students lack grit.

Learning from Our Students

Many critics of student activism are impatient with the current focus on institutional racism and inequality on campus because this activism sometimes lacks the traditional progressive focus on freedom of expression. To be sure, campus activists have made some missteps, but on balance they have respected and encouraged the free exchange of ideas, albeit with a focus on how some ideas can be silencing. And there are other reasons to be more respectful of student positions. These are young people (as young as seventeen!) who are still growing into their political consciousness. They are supposed to experiment with new approaches and ideas, and they should be supported in that. While some see a sense of entitlement reflected in certain aspects of student protests, many students have shown considerable bravery in standing up to intransigent university administrations or hostile groups on campus.

Faculty should never assume that there is little to learn from young activists. Indeed, often these activists have a lot to teach us about the ineffectiveness of old methods and the possibility of new approaches to achieving social change. Black Lives Matter is but one example of bold new activism that has reframed approaches to complex social issues, from mass incarceration to campus racism. While media coverage has narrowly focused on student demands for safe spaces and trigger warnings, at least one study showed that in fact such language has been rare in student demands, which are focused primarily on achieving more faculty diversity, expanding representation of minorities in the curriculum, and better supporting minority students. Some critics who dismiss young activists are effectively retreating into their own safe spaces, where they are sheltered from critiques of their own views of campus racial politics. The term political correctness has become a political weapon used to excuse rudeness, bigotry, and offensiveness toward members of traditionally marginalized groups.

Student activism has reminded us that the corporatization of the university has come at a cost: the curriculum, faculty diversity, and academic freedom have been negatively affected. In many law schools, for example, a demonstrable shift to a “teach-to-the-test” mentality has occurred in recent years as lower student enrollments have increased pressure on law schools to deliver higher bar passage rates. At the same time, law firms have increasingly demanded “practice-ready” graduates and various forces have destabilized law job placement. Many law schools, in turn, have routed students into bar courses, effectively pushing courses on the social impact of law, discrimination, racism, inequality, and interdisciplinary issues to the margins of the curriculum. More broadly, contingent faculty across disciplines are now expected to deliver “results” as defined by the administration, fearing they will be dismissed if they do not. Student activists have underscored AAUP principles in arguing that college education should be driven not simply by market imperatives. Social justice concerns about rooting out institutional discrimination and inequality are fundamentally academic freedom issues, which have rarely been more imperiled or important.

Despite all the racial tumult on campuses over the past year, this is a hopeful moment in higher education. Student activism has created an opportunity for us to reflect on past priorities and future goals. We should not feel threatened by the rise of new campus activists but rather acknowledge the opportunities they have created for us to make our curricula more representative and inclusive, to push for greater diversity in hiring and retention of faculty, and to resist the corporatization of the university. Doing so may require humility rather than defensiveness from those of us who disagree from time to time with the new generation of campus activists. Their activism reinforces, sometimes unintentionally, the importance of academic freedom for faculty who wish to experiment in their teaching and scholarship and address the issues around race that student activism has exposed. For this reason, they ought to be encouraged, even—or perhaps especially—where they make us uncomfortable about our settled opinions concerning race and racism on campus.

Peter Halewood is professor of law at Albany Law School.