Being black at a PWI: “We are all ConcernedStudent1950”

By Saeeda Joseph-Charles
Associate Editor, Vol. 21

After students, faculty, and even lawmakers called for his resignation, the University of Missouri’s system president, Tim Wolfe, finally stepped down earlier this month. On November 2nd, graduate student Jonathan Butler launched a hunger strike, which he said would end with either Wolfe’s resignation or his own death. Inspired by Mr. Butler’s actions, Black football players, and eventually the football team and its coaches, decided to protest as well, refusing to participate in any athletic events until Wolfe’s resignation. This meant that the Tigers would not be playing in an upcoming game against Brigham Young University, which would have cost the University at least one million dollars if cancelled. Tim Wolfe resigned shortly thereafter.

The hunger strike started by Mr. Butler, and the protests that followed, came after a “series of racially motivated incidents” on Mizzou’s campus, which went largely unaddressed by Wolfe’s administration. For instance, when two white students scattered white cotton balls in front of the Black Culture Center during Black History Month, “they were allowed to plead guilty to littering.” There was a swastika drawn in human feces in a residence hall, and a number of students and Black faculty reported being taunted with racial slurs while on campus. Many students believed that Wolfe failed to appropriately respond to these incidents of racism on campus, and criticized his handling of student complaints about race and discrimination.

This story has received national attention, and sparked heated debates about the apparent conflict between one’s right to freedom of speech and the right of students of color, particularly Black students, to a welcoming and safe college community. These discussions have also raised the question about the need for safe spaces, and university policies like those instituted by Mizzou in response to the student protests. As an African American woman, a minority law student at the University of Michigan, and someone who is inclined to stand in solidarity with minority students at the University of Missouri, Yale, and other predominantly white institutions, I felt like I needed to understand the opposing viewpoint, which will be the subject of this post.

While Black students at the University of Missouri were being threatened and harassed for taking a stance against racism on campus, many of my friends on social media sites were more interested in discussing freedom of speech than addressing racism in higher education. This bothered me. It made me feel as though my life, and the lives of people of color, were somehow less than one’s right to freedom of speech. They are both important, there is no debating that, but as the terrifying events at Mizzou came to light, my social media feeds were eerily quiet, my friends unconcerned.

Admittedly, there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. People have the right to make hateful comments like “What are all these niggers doing here?”, a statement recounted by a Black University of Michigan student during a recent event in the Diag, as she remembered being turned away from a frat party because she is Black. Although speech like that is shocking, there is nothing that can be done. And maybe with good reason. In a 1989 federal court decision, Doe v. University of Michigan, the Court struck down the University’s speech code,  which had been adopted in 1988 “after a campus anti-discrimination group threatened to file a class-action suit against the University. The group was upset over several incidents, including the distribution of a flier on campus that declared “open season on [B]lacks and referred to [B]lacks as ‘saucer lips, porch monkeys, and jigaboos.’” The speech policy prohibited any behavior that stigmatized or victimized a person because of his race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or creed, and that created an “intimidating hostile, or demeaning environment for education pursuits, employment, or participation in the University-sponsored extra-curricular activities.”

In the 18 months that this policy was in place, 20 white students charged Black students with offensive speech. One case resulted in the punishment of a Black student for “using the term ‘white trash’ in a conversation with a White student.” Based on previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the court held that the policy was overbroad and unconstitutionally vague “because people would have to guess at the meaning of the policy’s language.”

Perhaps a university-wide policy prohibiting hate speech is more complicated that I might have imagined, and isn’t an easy fix to problems minority students face on their college campuses. However, in requesting that universities take into account the fact that hate speech is rampant, the students of color at Mizzou, Yale, and other predominantly white institutions (PWIs) are trying to draw attention to the many instances of racism they experience daily. Instead of being met with compassion and understanding, these students are accused of whining and crying about their lived experiences, lived experiences that are being boiled down to nothing more than hurt feelings and disagreements about Halloween costumes. But it’s not just about feelings and costumes.

Hate speech, although not a crime, can turn into one, as evidenced by people like Dylann Roof, the young white man who was invited into a historically Black church, sat amongst its members during Bible study, and gunned down nine innocent people. The self-proclaimed white supremacist drew his gun and shot his victims one by one as they sat deep in prayer with their eyes closed. Defenseless. In an online manifesto many believe belonged to Roof, he “criticized [B]lacks as being inferior while lamenting the cowardice of white flight.” He saw himself as brave for being able to take the talk on the Internet to the real world. Despite his actions, the FBI is having a difficult time calling Dylann Roof what he really is: a domestic terrorist.

According to a 2015 New York Times article, “nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslims than by radical Muslims” in the United States since September 11, 2001. A Washington research center called New America counted: 48 people have been killed by non-Muslim extremists while 26 people have been killed by self-proclaimed jihadists. The shooting of nine Black churchgoers, including a state senator, should have been an opportunity for the FBI to show the country what domestic terrorism is and discuss its prevalence, but instead they have tip-toed around the issue. Similarly, many people seem to have turned a blind eye to the threats made toward Black students following the protests at Mizzou earlier this month. So far, there have been reports of people terrorizing and threatening Black students at Mizzou, Howard, and Kean. Protesting students are not just upset because their feelings are hurt, they are upset because they are experiencing something that white students cannot experience, and it is being condoned by their colleges and universities.

Last year a video surfaced of the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter brothers chanting that “you can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me. There will never be a nigger SAE.” The video sparked national outrage, and discussion about racism and Greek life. Shockingly, the president of the University immediately spoke out against the video, cutting ties with the campus’ chapter of the fraternity, closing the frat house, and “order[ing] all students living there to vacate within two days.” Although I don’t think that the students in the video should have been expelled from school, mostly because I am still trying to understand where First Amendment rights fit into all of this, I applaud the University of Oklahoma’s president for taking some action, for taking a stand against racism and discrimination on his campus, and for showing all of his students and faculty that the behavior exhibited by SAE members will not be tolerated.

Tim Wolfe, and administrators at PWIs around the country, could have done the same in response to claims of racism and discrimination on their campuses, to show their students and faculty that racism and discrimination will not be tolerated. Period. Instead, they remained silent and pushed students and faculty to protest. Under pressure, these universities then adopted codes or policies that have been criticized for violating the right to freedom of speech by “prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.” Although I understand that these PWIs are stuck between seeming unsympathetic to the plight of students of color, and protecting freedom of speech, I don’t understand why there can’t be some happy medium.

The American Civil Liberties Union seems to think that the answer is in recruitment of faculty and student diversity, “counseling to raise awareness about bigotry and its history, and changing curricula to institutionalize more inclusive approaches to all subject matter.” I tend to think that the ACLU is right on this. Censuring unpopular opinions cannot be the right answer, and allowing unpopular opinions, in theory, could start a discussion about why those viewpoints are problematic or may even help us understand why these viewpoints exist. However, students of color have been calling for increased diversity on their campuses and in many instances have yet to see results.

I’m not sure what the real solution is, but I do know that students of color and our allies are tired. We are all ConcernedStudent1950.