College campuses, from Yale to Claremont, are awash in black protest, to a greater extent than any time since the 1960s. It has struck conservatives as odd that protest against lingering racism is coming from the most privileged of African-Americans, most of them on full scholarships at elite universities, places that are about as accepting and politically correct as white America gets.
But think again. The several police murders since Ferguson have reminded blacks of all ages and stations just how little has changed in terms of the elemental vulnerability of even the most mannered and well educated of African-Americans. You can play by all of the rules of white society and still be blown away if a cop gets trigger-happy or mistakes a black honor student for a black intruder.
Jim Sleeper, who teaches at Yale and who has been highly critical of political correctness in the past, writes:
Entering a residential-college gate a few steps behind a white female fellow student, especially after dark, a black male undergraduate must brace himself against the indignity that will be foisted upon him by her quickened pace and sharp, over-the-shoulder glance, until and unless she recognizes him as a neighbor. Erased is everything in the black student's upbringing, culture or continent of origin that could correct her misperception.
You'd have to have a heart of stone -- or one twisted by ideological passion toward other kinds of violence -- not to understand 19-year-old black and Hispanic Yale students' calling out, in a march that drew a thousand Yalies of all colors into the streets this month, for someone or something to help them feel safe and loved in a community that promised them, not just refuge, but release from the burden. The chiaroscuro of intensely high and low expectations that people with dark skin must wander through is comprehensible to whites who take the trouble to listen.
The essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his best selling book, Between the World and Me, crystallized just how crazy-making it is to inhabit both worlds. The need to be on guard denies the self. Some critics found the book too pessimistic, even disabling rather than empowering. Others felt that Coates had articulated an existential cry that whites needed to hear to deepen their understanding of the impact of lingering racism, and that blacks needed to hear to affirm their own experience.
Not all African-Americans agreed. In a fascinating cover piece in Harpers, Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy insisted, challenging Coates and other black radicals, that is possible both to teach your children to be prudent and excel and to challenge institutional racism. To do the former, as well as the latter, does not make you complicit.
More recently, writing in the New York Times, Kennedy, one of those law professors whose photo was vandalized by black tape, cast a wary eye on the student protests. On the positive side, Kennedy wrote, "Activists have succeeded in shoving to the top of the higher-education policy agenda the claims, dissatisfactions, and aspirations of African-American students." On the other hand, he warned:
Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved...
Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are. Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults.
Here's the larger point. Black students have every right to force these issues. There has been far too much self-congratulation on the part of white America about what has already been accomplished. At the same time, the deeper patterns of institutional racism will not be solved on America's campuses, and there are limits to what a college president can do.
At several campuses, administrators who have sought to constructively engage students and make achievable concessions are finding that student leaders are loathe to compromise lest they seem to be selling out. These protests could be real opportunities to raise consciousness -- or they could end badly, in stalemate, protracted occupations, and bitterness on both sides.
And there is a deeper challenge here. America is currently the scene of ideological fragmentation, with lunatic activism on the far right that ranges from armed attacks on Planned Parenthood to assaults on refugees. With voting suppression rampant, as well as vicious anti-immigrant campaigns, most Republican presidential candidates have embraced the rightwing fringe rather than distancing themselves.
In this climate, progressives above all need unity and resolve, even as we continue to struggle to address unfinished business of social injustice.
A popular buzzword in left protest circles these days is "intersectionality." (I know, but stay with me here.)
The concept was first introduced in the 1980s by academic African-American feminists, notably Kimberlé Crenshaw, to refer to multiple and potentially overlapping identities of oppression or domination. Thus, race, gender, class and later, sexual orientation, all intersected and needed to be the basis for awareness, empathy and collaboration.
Without in any way diminishing these struggles, it seems to me that we need today a more embracing form of "intersectionality." We need not just common consciousness and awareness of the multiple forms of discrimination. We need a grand coalition of decency against all the forces of both the lunatic right and the big-business right, not just against college presidents who are not doing all they can to reverse the legacy of racism. Otherwise, we will live in a vulnerable cocoon of liberals versus radicals while the far right takes over the country.
We have been through this before. When Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1966, he and his henchman Ed Meese made sure that any administrator of the University of California who was the least bit indulgent of student protest lost his job. Chancellor Clark Kerr, the classical liberal, was fired within three weeks of Reagan taking office.
One also thinks of Germany circa 1930. The left fragmented into social democrats, communists, and splinter groups -- who refused to work together despite receiving far more votes than the Nazis. The weak post-1930 centrist national government gave into austerity demands and the economic collapse deepened. The Nazis, who never won a majority of the vote, took over.
The odds are that a truly dangerous demagogue will win the Republican presidential nomination. In our two-party system, a trained monkey could be the Republican nominee and still have a base of 45 percent of the vote. Add to that reality the risk of unexploded scandals plaguing the Clinton campaign and you have a ready-made catastrophe for American democracy.
So yes, let's take seriously the complaints and demands of the protestors. Let's respect the fact that black protest has its own logic and its own rhythms. And let's also keep our eye on the bigger picture.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. http://www.amazon.com/Debtors-Prison-Politics-Austerity-Possibility/dp/0307959805
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