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The Yale Protests and the No-Racism Axiom

Yale is one of several universities in the US currently being forced to deal with racism on its campus. Sadly, it is also one of several universities completely ill-equipped to do so, due to an apparent willful ignorance of its history, and also because of the effects of modern "colorblindness." I've written about this before in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but it's important to take a look at it now that Yale's and Mizzou's race problems are out in the open.

Calhoun College at Yale, named after John C. Calhoun, an outspoken advocate of slavery.

The Protection of Certain Speech

If you'd like to get a clear view of how modern racism in the US works, just read the various think pieces, op-eds and blog posts about the protests at Yale. Take for instance this one by a free-speech advocate in the Washington Post, who writes 
Readers may not realize that Halloween has become a season of campus controversy. For years, college administrators have been issuing stern warnings to students not to wear “offensive” costumes. I’d always assumed students were privately rolling their eyes at these often overbearing instructions from authority figures on how to dress.
Silly PC police, always meddling in the affairs of good people who are just trying to enjoy a holiday! Of course WaPo is far from a progressive publication, but this take on the Yale controversy is not dissimilar to this piece at Slate, in which the author writes 
I was shocked to watch students treat their professors and administrators with such disrespect. But horrified emotional responses aside, it’s troubling to see the Christakises scapegoated for defending the crucial liberal tradition of free speech.
Or check out this piece at The Atlantic, with a title and subtitle that say it all: "The New Intolerance of Student Activism: A fight over Halloween costumes at Yale has devolved into an effort to censor dissenting views." 

Freedom of speech, censoring dissenting views, students treating administrators with disrespect—surely this is all a sign of spoiled kids at an Ivy League institution running amok with political correctness, right? Shouldn't people have the freedom to express themselves however they see fit? Shouldn't there be an open marketplace of ideas? 

The problem is that these authors present a perspective that ignores societal power dynamics. They and many others like them ignore the history of race in this country, and the actual circumstances faced students of color on a predominantly white campus. In other words, we're seeing a clear failure of "colorblindness"—or a key feature, depending on ones vantage point. By ignoring systemic power structures, everyone ends up on an even playing field where all views are valid and should be protected. However, this notion is totally specious. In reality these authors are writing from the perspective of huge racial advantage (see below), and as such they are, perhaps unknowingly, equating "freedom of speech" with "freedom to discriminate." 

The Key Axiom of Colorblindness 

Modern-day colorblindness has been described in historical context and in great detail elsewhere (cf here and in this book, and chapter 4 of this book). My personal take is that colorblindness, and the racism that flows from it is based on one all-important axiom: Systemic racism is not a thing. I call this the No-Racism Axiom. Of course, this is not a true axiom because it can be disproven, but "colorblind" people take it as a foundational statement upon which they build their worldview. 

With this false axiom in place, the world (potentially) has the following features:
  • Black/Latino people have every advantage as, and in many cases more advantages than, white people in our society. All is fair and equal. (White people don't just say this, but they actually believe it [Mazzocco et al. 2006]; h/t my colleague Mazarin Binaji for recently pointing me to her and her coauthors' work on this topic).
  • Since there is no such thing as systemic racism, the fact that non-white people are underrepresented at all levels of power in the US (congress, the judiciary, the presidential cabinet, the Fortune 500, the professoriate at almost all universities, the STEM workplace, state government, the police, Hollywood) is because they don't work as hard as white people. The reason they don't work as hard, complicated, but probably due to welfare, their lack of interest in these aspects of society, their desire for free stuff, and a culture of poverty. Also, lack of preparation for college,, like I said it's complicated.
  • The only form of racism is interpersonal racism, and that is practiced by Bad People who are Other People who live somewhere in the country far from here. Racist things are certainly not said and done by people in my social circle or by my professional colleagues. (I call this "social non-Copernicanism": the assumption that one occupies a special, particularly just time and place in society.)
  • Racism flows both ways, with white people experiencing racism in their lives just the same as frequently as non-white people. Everyone has prejudices, and racism = prejudice based on race (It's natural! Ignore power imbalances!). Haven't you ever seen a black standup comedian? The way he talks about the white people. That's racism! (right?)
  • Racism is rare, so any complaints about it are implausible. Thus, if a group of students on your campus is complaining about persistent injustice they must be making it up or being "too sensitive." They should provide unimpeachable evidence of the offense, preferably in the form of a clear video. Otherwise, how can one be sure it was actually based on race and not some misunderstanding? You know how college kids are these days: coddled and entitled.
  • Since racism is rare and unlikely, and since it goes both ways, if you are in leadership and faced with complaints from students of color: 1) Don't call it racism, call it "insensitivity" 2) Understand that there are always two equal sides to the issue, and above all else 3) It's complicated. You know what? It's probably best not to say anything, lest you end up with an angry mob outside your office. Yeah, it's probably best not to say anything. 

Willfully Ignoring History


The worldview I just described is not tongue-in-cheek. Part of the controversy at Yale (only part) is due to an email asking people on campus not to wear certain costumes, including those that involve "feathered headdresses, turbans, wearing ‘war paint’ or modifying skin tone or wearing blackface or redface." In a No-Racism world, these are non-issues. Everything was made right when slavery ended and the Civil Rights Act was passed.

However, this is far from a clear-minded historical view. White people in this country forcibly removed Indigenous people from their lands and systematically attempted to completely erase their culture (and in many cases succeeded). As General William T. Sherman wrote, "We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children..." This is called ethnic cleansing when it occurs elsewhere, but it's Manifest Destiny in our exceptional nation's history books. Even if you feel like "the past is the past" and that this history has nothing to do with you personally (a dubious but common viewpoint), is it really too much to ask that we don't appropriate the culture of  a people that this country's founders systematically destroyed? 

As for blackface, this should be obvious, but sadly it isn't because of our country's ignorance of its racial history. Here's a primer on the ways in which blackface was used as a powerful propaganda tool to reinforce and spread the notion that Black people are stupid, lazy and criminal, with effects that ultimately led to our modern segregated education system, racist conceal state, and extrajudicial police killings (here's another resource on Black stereotypes). An excerpt:
The stock characters of blackface minstrelsy have played a significant role in disseminating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. Every immigrant group was stereotyped on the music hall stage during the 19th Century, but the history of prejudice, hostility, and ignorance towards black people has insured a unique longevity to the stereotypes. White America's conceptions of Black entertainers were shaped by minstrelsy's mocking caricatures and for over one hundred years the belief that Blacks were racially and socially inferior was fostered by legions of both white and black performers in blackface.
With this historical view in mind, is it really too much to ask that white people instead choose from literally millions of other costume ideas and avoid a few that mock and/or marginalize people of color? Could it maybe be too much to ask of white people to not spend a day of the year reminding Black and Brown people that their land, bodies and labor were stolen in order to build this country? Could it maybe be the responsibility of white people—who still draw huge benefits from the heinous acts perpetrated by past white people—to choose less offensive Halloween costumes, rather than telling people of color to "look away"?

Well, for house "master" Christakis, it was way too much to ask. And herein lay part, but far from all of the problem. The lived experiences of people of color (especially Black, Latin@ and Indigenous people) at Yale and other predominantly white institutions include regular and persistent reminders of their inferiority and unwelcomeness. But the voices of these students are too often silenced and/or unheard. White people don't see or hear these signals because as the dominant, normative group, they don't need to.  
I wonder why we only get a particular view of racial issues at universities...

Erasing and Silencing

Go back to that WaPo article and do a search for "race" or "racism." While "racism" appears in the title of one of the linked articles, Mr. Free Speech makes no mention of racism, or any form of systemic power dynamics at all in his writing. In fact, references to "racism" are extremely rare in the many if not most of articles written by white authors. You can find "racial insensitivity," but that hardly captures the reality of systemic racism in our country and institutions. The root cause, the thing against which the students at Yale are protesting, is made invisible. Our country's sordid and knowable history of white supremacy is swept under the rug. So instead of students of color being angry and frustrated about an unjust system that puts obstacles and insults in their daily lives, the reader is left only with a view of "coddled" students throwing temper tantrums over nothing. 

Further, the costumes that the Yale IAC recommended against aren't even listed, thereby denying the reader any opportunity for social or historical context. Finally, notice one other thing missing from all of these "thoughtful" articles: the voices of people of color, particularly those from historically marginalized groups who are actually there at Yale. 

The No-Racism Axiom is a specious yet extremely powerful tool for reshaping the discussion of the Yale protests against systemic injustice into a seemingly laudable defense of "free speech." However, when this non-axiom axiom is discarded, things suddenly come into focus. But in order to find this view, one must seek out the voices of people of color. They scan see things as they are, because it's a matter of their survival, emotionally, mentally and physically as they pursue higher eduction. Here are a few examples:

What's really going on at Yale (A Yale student's blog post published at HuffPo)

Here are some resources on the white supremacist history of Ivy League colleges:

Finally, regarding free speech (h/t Pieter van Dokkum):

From The roll-over text reads: "I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express."


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