On campus, a new civil rights era rises

Student protesters are demanding a sense of belonging that goes further than the antiracism movements of the past, experts say.

Student activists Max Hirsch (l.) and Anna Del Castillo discussed racial issues at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., Feb. 11.

Alex Zhang is not satisfied.

The stained-glass window of a shackled black slave, kneeling at the feet of John Calhoun, no longer looms over the students at the Yale University resident college bearing the American statesman’s name.

But the arched window in the common room is still there celebrating Calhoun, the valedictorian from the class of 1804, former US vice president, and orator who famously proclaimed slavery “a positive good.”

The more appropriate image of what Yale aspires to, Mr. Zhang says, is in the wood-paneled library at the top of the stairs. There, students place roses under a picture of Roosevelt “Rosey” Thompson from Little Rock, Ark., a beloved student and campus activist who died in a car accident during his senior year in 1984.

And if Zhang and the other Yale student activists get their way, the roughly 400 students who live in the neo-Gothic stone residence would no longer be known as “Hounies.” They would be “Roseys.”

“For me, it’s not about erasing history, it’s about how we remember history – and how we make history, today,” says Zhang.

The campaign to rename Calhoun College is still under way. After protests, which roiled the campus last fall, and a massive teach-in at Battell Chapel across the street, the university’s governing body held “listening sessions” at the end of January.

For Zhang, the quest for a more appropriate namesake for the building in which he lives embodies the hopes of students now engaged in a wide-ranging wave of campus protests sweeping across the country on a scale not seen since the 1960s, bringing demands for a new environment within America’s institutions of higher learning.

Indeed, in what might be called a new Millennial zeitgeist, thousands of students in campuses across the nation, from state universities like Missouri and Maryland to highly selective private schools like Amherst, Brandeis, and Brown, have been infused with a restless impatience.

Diversity vs. inclusion

Minority students and their supporters say that diversity and inclusion aren’t the same thing, and they are no longer willing to settle for a token of the former. Instead of feeling isolated on campus, they want to feel at home.

“They’re really starting to look at this in a very nuanced way, and beyond ideas about diversity and access,” says Ajuan Mance, professor of English at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. “In some ways, they are moving even beyond the notion of equality, and they’re really kind of parsing this new notion of ‘equity,’ and what that would feel like.”

“They are expecting their college experience to ‘feel’ as it would for a white student,” he continues. “They’re looking for that sense of belonging, and that, I would say, that is a very different approach and a very different goal than we’ve seen in previous generations with antiracism movements.”

In the sometimes fractious process playing out on campuses, which so far has cost several faculty members, administrators, and one university president their jobs, the student activists have brought terms such as “safe spaces” and “tokenism” into the mainstream. Going further, they are seeking to broaden the definition of “white supremacy” far beyond skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan to include their view of a society that, they say, overwhelmingly looks at issues from a white male perspective.

This expanded definition can make even those who see themselves as liberal uncomfortable. When critics point to what they see as a disregard for the First Amendment rights of those who question their approach or disagree with their definition of progress, these students say they are, in fact, exercising their right to free speech.

Rejecting hierarchies and “great” figureheads, they say they are willing to “defy the status quo, buck the momentum of centuries of flawed civilization, and move in a different direction,” as Kate Groetzinger, who graduated from Brown University in 2015, wrote in Quartz.

They have come of age during the tenure of the nation’s first black president and witnessed the social revolution that last year made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

And in the aftermath of events like the Charleston, S.C., shootings, in which nine black churchgoers were gunned down last year by a man enthralled with white supremacy, as well as the dozens of highly publicized killings of unarmed black men that launched the parallel and overlapping “Black Lives Matter” movement, students demanding campus change say they have a new sense of urgency.

“We are in the context of the Black Lives Matter era,” says Kimberly Ashby, a doctoral student in psychology at Boston College and founding member of the protest group Eradicate Boston College Racism. “We’re a little more radical about the way we think about diversity and multiculturalism now.... There’s really been a shift from multiculturalism to combating white supremacy – something we’re all soaked in.”

And the country is waking up a bit, says Ms. Ashby, an African-American clinician from Philadelphia. She points to a growing number of people coming to grips with the historical reasons why black and brown men fill the country’s prisons, why lead-poisoned water is pumping into poor Flint, Mich., homes and not those in wealthy Grosse Pointe, and why so many Americans want to summarily expel unauthorized immigrants.

Some early victories have centered around the renaming of buildings, as students seek to carve in stone and brick a new ethos that prizes social justice over fame or august titles.

So far, Georgetown University has expunged from campus buildings the names of former presidents who traded in slaves to pay school debts. The University of Maryland, College Park removed the name of a former president and white supremacist from its football stadium. And in January, Amherst College disowned its unofficial mascot, “Lord Jeff,” the colonial-era commander who advocated giving native Americans smallpox-laden blankets in order “to extirpate this execrable race.”

Student protesters at Princeton University in New Jersey, too, have also demanded a reevaluation of the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, the nation’s 28th president and one of the architects of modern liberalism. He was not simply a genteel racist of his day, they and many historians say, but in many ways a white supremacist and eugenicist.

Viewed in a larger frame, experts say the current student protests could be seen as growing pains as the country struggles to accommodate an increasing pluralism. By 2045, according to the US Census Bureau, the percentage of white Americans will fall below 50 percent for the first time, and America’s founding Anglo-Protestant legacies will be one part of the tapestries of time.

On the one hand, minority students are demanding that their own histories in the United States be acknowledged. Student group after student group is demanding more ethnic studies scholars – as well as curriculum requirements that all students become aware of what happened to their ancestors in America, and a more sophisticated understanding of how these histories affect the reality of their experiences today. 

‘I feel tokenized every day’

Yet on the other hand, minority students mostly agree that they are sick of being treated like “minorities.”

One of the most frequent demands on campuses is that more people of color make up university faculties and student bodies. “I certainly feel tokenized every day at Boston College,” says Ashby, noting that only 3 percent of undergraduates are African-American. “I see very few people who look like me. There are more black students in grad school, but I’m the only African-American student in all my classes.”

At Tufts University in Medford, Mass., about 200 students held a November walkout to demand that, among other things, the administration work to increase the number of black students on campus and that the percentage of African-American faculty be increased from 3 percent to 13 percent.

“I think the biggest issue is that students, myself included, want to feel like they’re part of a community that is diverse and that accepts all types of communities,” says Anna Del Castillo, a Latina sophomore studying international relations. “We don’t feel comfortable at an institution that only has 3 percent of people who identify the way that we do,” she says, citing the campus protest group, the Three Percent Movement – or the percentage of black students at Tufts.

“So I think it’s like creating a space where we feel comfortable and where we can look around and see people that are like us,” continues Ms. Del Castillo, who came from Ocean Springs, Miss., as part of the university’s Bridge to Liberal Arts Success at Tufts program, which aims to bring in students from underrepresented areas. “I want to feel comfortable going into class with people who aren’t of one type.”

Kevin Ferreira, another graduate student in psychology at Boston College, says he has struggled to find his place in the school – both in his research in developmental and educational psychology and in his everyday life in academia.

“I’m the first born in the US; I’m from an immigrant family. A lot of my work has been with immigrant communities ... and then also, I’m a queer man. And so, social justice is one of the major lenses that I view the world through,” says Mr. Ferreira, who along with other Eradicate protesters received disciplinary warnings for a carol-singing protest they held in December. Among the songs rewritten for the occasion: “Walkin’ in a White Man’s Wonderland.”

“Most of the readings that I have do not represent who I am at all,” he says. “I don’t read much about immigrant families. I don’t read much about queer people. And when I ask about how [psychological attachment theory] works for same-sex parents, it’s just like, ‘There might be fringe research about this.’ That is the response. Or ‘Go talk to the one gay faculty member.’ ”

‘Safe spaces’

In an era when the megaphones of social media can amplify an ill-chosen set of 140 characters – let alone racist graffiti or video of unarmed people killed by police – a siege mentality has appeared to emerge among some protesters and their allies.

At places such as the University of Missouri, some protest groups have aggressively demanded “safe spaces,” and a number of public incidents have evoked both outrage and concern about what appears to be the emergence of a new kind of racial intolerance and even separatism.

The most infamous occurred at Mizzou in the fall, when student journalists were ordered to leave a protest on the campus quad, a space public under state law, by a professor who pushed one and called for “some muscle” to eject them. (Melissa Click was charged with misdemeanor assault and was fired from the university in February.)

In February, the same Mizzou protest group, Concerned Student 1950, tried to eject journalists from a public forum advertised for “black students and students of color.” When a student journalist asserted his right to attend, the group stopped the meeting and moved to another space.

For her part, Ashby says she’s had an evolution of thought over the years about the value of “safe spaces.” “No space is ever truly safe. That’s a reality for people of color, for trans people, for minorities,” Ashby says.

Under the new questioning ethos, even events that many people regard as patriotic have come under scrutiny. At the University of Minnesota last fall, the student association initially voted down a resolution to honor the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “The passing of this resolution might make a space that is unsafe for students on campus even more unsafe,” said one student, saying it would add fuel to Islamophobia. “When will we start having moments of silence for all of the times white folks have done something terrible?” After a backlash, the student group approved an annual moment of silence.

What about the First Amendment?

The resulting furor has prompted critics from the right and left to describe this generation of students as coddled narcissists, thin-skinned and self-absorbed, as one Cornell alum wrote in an open letter last fall.

Others have decried a threat to the country’s traditions of robust freedom of speech. Indeed, according to a survey by Pew Research last November, 40 percent of Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups. Only 25 percent of baby boomers and Generation Xers said such limits were OK. 

But many student protesters reject the idea that they are trying to limit free speech or expression on campus.

“A lot of people are bringing up free speech and freedom of expression, and saying, you’re sheltering these students from the real world,” says Kafaya Shitta-bey, a student at Hunter College in New York and a first-generation Nigerian American. “And I just find that so ironic. Like, this is why these kids are standing up for themselves, and using their own freedom of speech.”

Last December, Ms. Shitta-bey wrote an article for the Hunter student publication The Bridge Magazine, describing racially offensive Halloween costumes that were being posted on social media. Her article came after an uproar at Yale University, when professor Erika Christakis asked in a philosophical e-mail, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious, a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”

“Even though I was shocked, I could still understand where she was coming from,” says Shitta-bey of the e-mail.

“This is why we’re protesting and pushing back, because we deal with this outside of school. And now we have to come to school and see people mocking us?” she says. “People are going to act the way they act, but that doesn’t mean we can’t say something about it.”

But critics point to the fallout surrounding the e-mail, which included a video of a student screaming profanity at Ms. Christakis’s husband, a master at one of Yale’s residential colleges, as an example of political correctness run amok, trampling the well-meaning as well as the ill-intentioned. In the turmoil’s wake, Christakis resigned and her husband took a leave of absence.

Last semester, the campuses of Sarah Lawrence College and Fordham University in New York were roiled by reports of racist taunts, as well as anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish graffiti.

“The campus was churning about it, and we decided, let’s put this out here for everyone to take part in a conversation about racism, and challenge them to kind of respect differing ideas, and to engage in meaningful conversations that were civil and respectful, even though they were difficult and uncomfortable,” says Allen Green, dean of equity and inclusion at Sarah Lawrence. 

It’s the type of conversations that administrators around the country are struggling to foster. “It was trying to challenge us to take this to a level where we would have some civil discussions, and we’ve been meeting with students around these issues who have felt that they’ve been aggrieved,” Mr. Green says. “And I think that’s been very helpful, that we’re listening to them; we’re trying to elevate this to a discussion that can be transformative.”

Next: Should colleges provide 'safe spaces'?

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