How Money and Privilege, Not Humanity Nor Ethics, Drives Racial Equity Action on Campus

A general image of people protesting
A general image of people protesting

There are important things to consider about the racially charged events occurring at Mizzou and both traditional and social media have brought these to light. The convergence of race and economic capital, in the case of the football players that threatened to suspend play if the Mizzou university president did not step down--which he did--shone dazzlingly, illuminating how money and not the sanctity of humanity or ethics drive race-based equity action.

At the same time, Yale University students also took to the streets in protest over the dismissiveness of university administrators and faculty to the possibility of students wearing Halloween costumes that reified racist stereotypes and/or misappropriated communities of color. This came in an email sent by staff member and co-master of the Silliman Dorm, Erika Christakis and was supported by her partner, both a faculty member and Master of the dorm, Nicholas Christakis. In the message Christakis draws the line at curtailing students' freedom to don potentially offensive outfits. Bolstering her arguments with her knowledge and experiences in child development, she deploys progressive discourses of student-centered growth and freedom, positioning universities as an ideal safe place for young people to exercise choice, mistakes and all.

The problem with this progressive rhetoric is not simply that it is insensitive or naive which it is. What it also reflects is race-blindness, shrouded in theory and philosophical argumentation of how the social world should operate. Yet the rules of race and power hamper the "shoulds," highlighting that in a society marred by entrenched race inequity, freedom, along with the space to grow and develop are reserved only for those already recognized and treated as fully human.

If the Mizzou incident illustrates how power interests are at the root of all racial redress, as eloquently theorized by the late legal scholar Derrick Bell the Yale occurrence reveals the insidiously dangerous ways that race lurks in the folds of seemingly progressive, democratic rhetoric and the ideologies that support them. Yet as scholar and MacArthur Fellow Lisa Delpit alerted us to years ago and the Yale case illustrates, these can and do go awry.

Freedom--its inviolability and dogged pursuit--is never free or a given in a U.S. society that legally, illegally and extra-legally refused to give title to all of its inhabitants. Communities of color have long known this, recognizing this knowledge as part of the larger struggle when navigating spaces of White privilege while also seeking to maintain sanity and self/communal self-preservation. Yet, for Whites, this same privilege allows one to expect and feel entitled to exercise the freedom to live, explore, make mistakes and regroup, regardless of the impact such enjoyment might have on those around them.

Regarding this privilege I am reminded of an incident that took place in an undergraduate course that I, a Black woman professor taught at The University of Texas at Austin. During a group discussion a White female student announced to the class that included a several Black students and other students of color, that she had the right and freedom to use the N-word as she pleased. She proceeded to use the word gratuitously, several times without any pause or reflection. Never once did she, like Christakis question who has the privilege to name and define the contours of freedom. Neither did they consider their own privilege in deciding when, where and at whose expense they invoked their personal notions of freedom. Nor did they consider the costs and impact their perspectives on freedom had on the safety and emotional well-being of others in our collective space.

This is the privilege that made it possible for Christakis to speak of freedom as something everyone has equal right to possess, enjoy and invoke, and universities--including her own, one of the most elite in the world--as neutral, safe spaces for this agentic exploration. This privilege also made it possible to disregard the personal and collective violence students of color at Yale experienced when watching their peers dress in racially offensive and culturally misappropriated ways. Christakis made it clear that it was not her place, as a representative of the university to police or even suggest how students should dress for Halloween. To do this would violate the students' freedom, stunting their personal development and agency. If people of color must endure those niggling racial microggressions that assault their very being in service of cultivating this freedom and development for their peers, so be it.

To these points we must be clear. Christakis was not talking about the agency, freedom and safety of all students. She was speaking for White students, those most privileged and empowered to appropriate others without impunity. The young people at Yale saw this. They recognized she covered this fact in a statement presented as a well-reasoned, thoughtful consideration of philosophy, theory and personal experience. But they also recognized this as violence of the most insipid kind--reified academic and experiential knowledge presented as objective and neutral, fully vested in yet paradoxically disconnected from the everyday lived realities of people and power. This is why those bold Yale students called her out, along with her partner and the entire Yale administration, including the first Black Dean in the history of the university.

For those still puzzling over the need for a #Blacklivesmatter movement, the Yale case, along with the Mizzou incident soberly answers the question. In whatever arena we find ourselves--as academics, policymakers, entrepreneurs, educators, public officials, or simply concerned citizens we must question the language we use, the frameworks we hold and the explanations we offer about the social world in which we live.

Theories do not make or break the world. But they do serve as the glue that organizes our understandings of and actions within it. We cannot hide behind our theories and ideologies, no matter how elegant, well-founded or even progressive we presume they are without asking hard questions about the implications they have on the world that has come before us and the one we currently inhabit. We must continually ask ourselves what interests stand to benefit (or not) from the perspective we hold? Does this perspective account for the historical and institutional contexts that have shaped the inequities we find in the present? What are the longstanding costs and to whom will these most accrue in light of this perspective?

Asking and reflecting on these questions will not solve the problems we have inherited from our country's unsavory racial past. But they do ask that we stop and think about the things we believe, the statements we say and the actions we take their behalf.