I’ve been poring over Op-Ed pieces and news accounts of the racial tumult at “Mizzou,” Yale and now Dartmouth and elsewhere, trying to make sense of what is going on. Defining what the Harvard Crimson has called “the movement” is not easy; no list of discrete demands has been put forth. Ostensibly, the protesting students want a campus and wider world characterized by racial equality, if not harmony. But the movement also features strong currents of nihilism and sadism that undermine its own cause; alienate untold numbers of the potentially sympathetic; and confirm the worst suspicions of conservative observers, who are legion. Campus protestors are not doing a good job of thinking broadly and strategically.
The movement practically – and dangerously – insists on solipsism, while denying the existence of moral imagination. It holds that some groups suffer in a way that is unique and unfathomable to outsiders. Only blacks know what it is like to experience racism against blacks; only Asian-Americans know what it is like to experience racism against Asian-Americans; only gays know what it is like to experience homophobia; only women know what it is like to experience the oppression of women; and on and on. In our exquisite pain, we are alone; no one group can even remotely comprehend what another is going through. Never mind that normally a person who is suffering is able to describe it to others in an understandable way, or that the sign of a mature individual is her ability to put herself in someone else’s shoes. As the humanity we have in common is denied, the possibility for empathy is ruled out.
That is what allowed the recent “Blackout demonstration” inside Dartmouth’s main library to run amok. If you deny that others experience the world in a way similar to yours, it is easy to abuse them. You can’t feel an empathy that is said not to exist. Thus, some of the demonstrators ended up shouting the following at their fellow students: “F**k your white a$$es,” “F**k your white privilege,” and “F**k your white comfort.” Several women ended up in tears. That such race-based incivility surfaced on an intimate New England college campus bespeaks a spitefulness inside the movement that should make everyone wary, and make the movement itself realize that it has provoked a growing backlash. An impulse to make others suffer because of their race can only lead to destruction. It is time to stop advancing down the path of balkanization and revenge.
That is a shame, because the movement should be able to point the public to legitimate concerns. In this regard, perhaps the most cogent and revealing statement I’ve read comes from an open letter written by the University of Florida’s student body president, Joselin Padron-Rasines: “At our own university, we are suffering from decreasing black student enrollment.” That data point is alarming in a concrete way that contrasts with the movement’s current nebulousness.
Looking at the enrollment data of public institutions of higher learning around the country, one discovers that at the University of Michigan, the percentage of African Americans reached a high of nearly nine percent of the total undergraduate student body in 1996, but then plummeted to just 3.8 percent of the class entering in 2014. (These data compare with the 13.2 percent of the total population that is black.) At the University of California, Berkeley, black undergraduate enrollment has dropped from 4.3 percent of the student body in 1995, to just 3 percent in 2012. At UCLA, the number has dropped from 5.1 percent in 1996 to the current 4 percent. At the aforementioned UF, the percentage of enrolling freshmen who are black has more than halved from around 13 in 2007 to 6 in 2013, far and away the lowest number since at least 1991. Meanwhile, according to Minnesota Public Radio, “University of Minnesota officials are expressing concern over the declining number of African-Americans attending graduate school there.” The lament is typical of many public institutions of higher learning.
The picture at some private institutions, at least, is better. According to the “Common Data Set,” at Dartmouth black enrollment has increased from around six percent in the early 2000’s, to around eight percent in recent years. At Princeton University black enrollment during that time has held steady at about eight percent as well. At Yale, enrollment by African Americans for years has hovered around six-and-a-half percent. So, while African American representation at some colleges is dropping, even precipitously, educational opportunity at some others remains just as robust as before.
But what about the socioeconomic indicators for African Americans? What is happening beyond the campus green? Here, the relative picture is bleak. In 2014, fully 26.2 percent of blacks lived in poverty (as compared with 10.1% of whites.) Moreover, of blacks under age fifteen, 36.4 percent currently live in poverty. The incarceration rate for blacks is over three times that of whites. And the unemployment rate for blacks in September of this year stood at 11.4 percent, as against 5.3 percent for whites. “In the 42-year period during which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has separated out unemployment data into different races,” notes the Washington Post, “black unemployment has always been higher than white unemployment. In fact, it has always been at least two-thirds higher.” Meanwhile, life expectancy for blacks in 2010 was 74.6 years but 78.9 years for whites.
Given this picture of ongoing economic disadvantage, which indicates an obstinate structural racism in our country, it is not surprising that African American college students feel frustrated; it is understandable that they are acutely sensitive to racial slights, and worse. What these students should do now, rather than seek to antagonize, is back a project of broad economic reform in the USA. Calling for the resignation of college presidents, as has occurred at Mizzou and now Ithaca College, for failing to address perceived racism on their campuses is a mere palliative that might provide some immediate satisfaction but will not lead to fundamental economic and social changes. To go beyond the nature of window dressing, additional measures need to be taken. More needs to be done as our nation tries to overcome its terrible legacy of slavery.
With a presidential election approaching, now would be an opportune time to demand en masse that the federal government implement policies that would improve life for African Americans — along with other broad segments of the populace. Raising the minimum wage substantially would lift many workers out of poverty, while bolstering salaries more generally. Instituting universal health insurance not only would provide a sense of security to millions who need it but also improve the overall health of the nation. (Indeed, life expectancy for some segments of the US white population actually has started to fall.) Creating a massive infrastructure-building program would create thousands upon thousands of jobs and rectify a current major national deficiency. Ensuring that public colleges and universities were financially accessible to all could reverse some of the trends noted above and set many young people on a path of upward mobility. And, as the episode of the striking Mizzou football players hinted at, now might be a good time to apply financial pressure at big universities to ensure that athletes finally get paid their fair share of the colossal amounts of revenue they generate for their schools.
The elimination on campus of all forms of overt racist expression looks impossible, unfortunately. And self-appointed guardians of free speech already have their hackles up. But the movement would do well to coalesce around concrete policy initiatives aimed at improving the lives of African Americans, and just about everybody else as well.