As I witness the turmoil over race unfold at Yale, the University of Missouri, and other colleges across the nation, I am confronted with memories that are at once fresh and devastatingly painful.
As a recent graduate of Princeton, a university embroiled in its own tensions over race and inclusion, I stand firmly in solidarity with all Black college students. I take this stand precisely because my vicarious stake with my Black brothers and sisters at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere is such that I cannot feel comfortable with this injustice, even as an alumnus. Because I know, ultimately, that silence is complicity.
That silence is violence.
I had firsthand experience with issues of racial marginalization, violence, and oppression while at Princeton, where I did organizing and mobilizing work to address issues around campus racism and racial inclusion. Now, as I watch Yale and Mizzou, I see much of what I saw at Princeton: how Black students’ protestations over campus racism have received virulent backlash, a backlash couched in and defended by the concept of “freedom of speech.”
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At Yale, the discourse on free speech emerged from intense controversy over an email that a residential college associate head sent regarding minority students’ outrage over students’ donning of offensive Halloween costumes. The email was an unsolicited entreaty to students to be tolerant of costume wear that could be perceived as racially offensive and/or culturally appropriative, on the basis that students in an academic community have full rights to exercise freedom in both speech and expression. The issue I take here is not the associate head’s call for freedom of speech but rather her indifference in condoning offensive speech and expression as righteous and practicable under the guise of “free speech.”
The free speech argument in response to racism is logically fallacious because it invokes a fundamentally American constitutional principle without considering how that principle is informed and troubled by the historical and contemporary context of race and racial exclusion.
Blacks have a fraught relationship to American constitutionality, a relationship rooted in a history of denied access to and limited recognition of the full markers of constitutional citizenship. The legal-political marginalization of Black identity has historical residue that lingers in the present – and persists in institutions such as colleges and universities.
Further, it is important to note that, even within the purview of constitutionality, the free speech of some becomes malpractice when it begins to infringe upon the liberties of others in a society. So it is misguided to claim that racially offensive language and conduct be condoned under and constituted as free speech. Such expression has no meaningful use in an academic community that purports to work toward “inclusion.” In fact, tolerance of racial and cultural insensitivity is antithetical to universities’ aims at real, substantive inclusion.
Especially at places like Yale and Mizzou, institutions dedicated to “higher learning,” disputes about free speech often devolve into unproductive university panels and convenings, essentially referendums that debate the validity of Black students’ experiences. However, the experiences of Black students should not be up for debate.
When we intellectualize Black students’ deeply personal experiences of racism, we do the injustice of marginalizing Black racial identity; casting away the emotions, pain, struggles, and experiences of Black students as unreal and invalid; and preventing those not Black from seeing Black folks as fully human.
Invoking the principle of free speech to address and respond to racism on campus is a trivial pursuit. Black lives won’t matter until we realize that Black lives matter on college campuses, too, and until we are intentional and honest in our efforts to confront and combat structural anti-Black racism in collegiate spaces.
Khallid Love, a resident of Charlotte’s Hidden Valley neighborhood, is a 2011 Vance High School graduate. He earned a B.A. in Math from Princeton University in June.