RACIAL TENSIONS ERUPT ONE MORE TIME
“NIGGER:” FREE SPEECH? HATE
SPEECH? PROTECTED SPEECH?
In the aftermath of the protests at the University of Missouri, one of my alma maters, Howard University, is in the news today after a message circulated across campus Wednesday night. It reads as follows:
“I left MU [Missouri University] yesterday because I couldn’t put up with it anymore. Turn on the news and it’s always the Niggers causing trouble everywhere. So I’ve decided. Any Nigger left at Howard University after 10:00 tomorrow will be the first to go. Any that try to escape on the Metro will regret that. I’ll go out a hero knowing that I made the world better. I just hope that at least someone else can see it too and continue the fight……
After all, it’s not murder if they’re black.”
Idle Free Speech mouthings? Idiot blatherings? Demented ravings? Lest you think that this is the idle threat of a lunatic, recall the very similar manifesto of Dylann Roof who murdered nine Black people in a Charleston, South Carolina church this past summer.
So: Killing Niggers? Free Speech? Hate Speech? But in an age when on any day of the week you can find the self-same messages, with the self same racist rants and self-same derogatory insults and epithets in virtually any comment section following a Yahoo article about race, is there any point in actually categorizing such vile comments?
Here’s one of the most thoughtful, insightful and intelligent pieces I’ve seen about this so-called “Free Speech” issue. Maybe it’s the final word. It appeared in this morning’s Washington Post and it’s by Danielle Allan, a Harvard University political theorist.
"IT’S NOT ABOUT FREE SPEECH"
The mid-20th-century gains of the civil rights movement rested on an implicit bargain: The pursuit of equality in civil and political rights could be advanced only at the expense of the pursuit of social equality. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, for instance, included an exemption for private clubs protecting them from the requirements of non-discrimination law. That bargain holds no longer. That is the fundamental meaning of this week’s events at the University of Missouri and Yale University.
The issues of free speech matter, too, but they are leading people in the wrong direction, away from the deepest issue. A recent University of Chicago report on free speech gets it right: “The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” This idea protects not only those who wish to wear blackface for Halloween but also those being skewered in the media for having called for the resignation of specific institutional leaders. On this subject, I would say, there’s little to see here. Move along.
The real issue is how to think about social equality.
A re-orientation of our cultural life toward the embrace of such an ideal has been creeping up on us ever since Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a concurring opinion in the 1984 case Roberts v. United States Jaycees. That case put an end to that exemption for private clubs. To achieve social equality, however, against a backdrop of centuries of racial social subordination demands not only the vision of prophets who can imagine that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood. It calls, too, for cultural transformation, for a revolution, even, in our ordinary habits of interaction.
The fight over cultural transformation is being waged on the grounds of how to deal with offensiveness. We all have a beautiful, wonderful democratic right to be offensive. Yet offensiveness is not, in fact, innocuous. So how can we thread this needle?
The issue is not, of course, about single, specific insults, of which we all have tales, and which we all have to learn to take in stride. I, too, was called “n-” on campus in the lovely, deep late-night dark of Princeton in the spring of 1993. The point, rather, is that, in the case of race, such insults represent a rising to the surface of what psychologists call “implicit bias,” a general attribution in this country of lesser value to the lives of dark-skinned people than to those with lighter skin. Psychologists have found that not only non-blacks but also blacks harbor implicit bias against blacks. And implicit bias does its dirty work in any number of contexts: hiring decisions; policing intuitions; school discipline; teacher-student mentoring; elections; and so on.
When my father was running for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate in California in the early 1990s, I remember handing out fliers in an Orange County mall. One flier had only a photo of my African American father on it. The other had the faces of all three candidates; the other two were white. I could not get people to take the flier showing only my father’s face.
That was a long time ago, of course.
But the project of cultural transformation is still very much with us. In Missouri, we had an institution that was not trying. In Yale, we had an institution that was trying. (Notably, Yale tried by doing just what is demanded by a respect for free speech: not issuing requirements but asking questions.) Both have storms on campus.
How do you transform communities and environments that were developed to resonate with the aesthetic tastes and ways of life of one demographic group when they are meant to be homes equally welcoming to all? How do you adjust social habits that have flowed out of long traditions of hierarchy to perform nobly at the table of brotherhood?
The seriousness of these questions is real, and it is reasonable and necessary for the institutions of civil society to address them. I think that in all of this controversy we have missed the biggest story of all: Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler starved himself for a week in pursuit of social equality. His action accurately measures the significance of the goal
NOTE: In my view, the current “controversy” over Free Speech essentially reflects the corruption of every single one of our “systems” – social, political, economic – under the weight of the culture wars, conservative philosophy and the substitution of slogans and propaganda for facts and truth. It’s no mystery about why the protests at Missouri University and other campuses around the country are occurring nor why the Black Lives Matter movement matters to those of us who understand that beneath the annual holiday Fox News “War On Christianity” stories, beneath Rush Limbaugh’s daily excoriation of us “Commie Libruls” taking over the country, there is, underneath all this blithering irrelevant blather, a reality. It's called the world we actually live in as opposed to the virtual world of the media and computers.
Perhaps, if over the past thirty years America hadn’t ignored the continuing presence of structural racism in our society, hadn’t been so anxious to declare a “post-racial society” following the 2008 Obama election, had actually chosen to address our real problems and not the so-called Christian wars and non-existent Voter Fraud epidemic that suddenly mushroomed across the country like an Ebola epidemic, maybe we wouldn’t find ourselves still struggling so mightily with issues of race and “free speech” that we’ve been struggling with since the Civil War.