A White Supremacist Walks on to a College Campus…

Image: Students at Harvard University protesting a speech by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (source)

and $600,000 gets spent on security.  When we read that, our immediate reaction was, “what else could we do with  $600,000?”

  • scholarships for low-income students;
  • a series of lectures by prominent historians of color, focusing on what really led to the Civil War;
  • supply needed books to the Carleton Textbook library;
  • laptops and other techy needs for students who don’t have the means.

In other words, this particular recent incident at the University of Florida had us thinking about how we might and should respond if, say, Richard Spencer were to speak on our campus, as well as about how our institutional and collective responses extract costs from our campus community–financially, emotionally, and otherwise–that are important to consider.

Truth be told, we went back and forth about whether we should write this piece, even though we have frequent conversations about the topic. We know that it’s a lot easier to diagnose and critique when you’re not in the middle of the fracas. So we don’t see our views as a critique of what other universities and colleges and student bodies have done; rather, what we do want to do is to remind ourselves of our core goals as an educational institution and then imagine what tactics match up with them. We do think that sometimes our tactics damage our causes, and that’s not useful for any of us as we fight against white supremacy, historical revisionism, and hate. To that end, we hope that readers will comment and add their thoughts and questions.

As we’ve said before, in general, we believe that more speech is better than less speech. For example, if Charles Murray wants to come speak to your campus about the supposed correlation between genetics and race and class inequality, perhaps you could also invite Lani Guinier to discuss how SAT scores correlate with wealth. In the case of Richard Spencer, perhaps you invite Daryl Davis to speak about his work getting KKK members to leave the group. This kind of response, we believe, affirms the goal of colleges and universities to provide opportunities for the contest of reasoned, evidenced arguments.

Sometimes it might seem like a responding speech will not be heard or respected. And sometimes there are no reasoned arguments to be made in the face of hateful, vile speech. We like the way Son of Baldwin puts this: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” In these scenarios, we think that getting creative might be the way to go. We loved the way that the University of Florida professor Laura Ellis made sure that the school carillon tower bells rang out “Lift Every Voice” when Richard Spencer arrived on campus. And we couldn’t help but appreciate the way that Wunsiedel, Germany made sure that a neo-nazi march raised money for an anti-extremist organization; they made sure that the neo-nazis’ exercise of their free speech rights brought with it some measure of reparations.

We also wonder: when is silence a useful tactic? Silence on its own might be read as consent. But we were struck by how Bethune-Cook students organized a (mostly) silent but deliberately very visible response to Betsy De Vos’s commencement speech. They turned their backs on her and eventually some walked out, making a strategic statement about the value of her speech and their refusal to cosign.

In the end, though, we think that any of strategic responses against these singular performances of extreme white supremacy should not overshadow the work we have to do against the everyday forms of white supremacy that pervade our institutions. For example, it does us no good to shout down Charles Murray or turn our backs on him if we don’t question our institutions’ continued reliance on standardized tests as one way to measure our students’ potential. We worry that these individual events take so much energy that might be better spent on efforts to create inclusive, anti-racist institutions.

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