Getting the story wrong on campus racism

Let's take a current events quiz and see if you can identify this scenario: a university D.J. tells racist jokes on air; racist jeers and graffiti start to appear across campus; African-American students take over an administration building to protest the racial climate on campus; and, weeks later, university administrators respond with a policy to punish racist speech. Sound familiar? You're thinking this is currently happening at the University of Missouri or Yale University, right? Wrong. That's the University of Michigan from the late 1980s. Of course, it also could have been the University of Wisconsin, Brown University or the University of Pennsylvania, each of which also struggled with how to handle racist speech and incidents that occurred on campus more than 25 years ago.


Fast-forward a quarter century, and we're again seeing racist incidents and counter-protests on campus and — once again — we're seeing commentators, politicians and even the media getting the issue wrong. Rather than focus on the issues that generated the student demonstrations and protests, coverage has already turned toward pushing back on a presumed wave of political correctness that's allegedly threatening free speech on campus and beyond. A short review of recent articles, tweets and blogs shows a mass blowback against "left-wing hostility to freedom of expression" and "hypersensitivity among young people." One commentator has gone so far — I hope in jest — to call for raising the voting age to 21 because young people are unable to tolerate debate on political issues with which they disagree.

Pardon me if I don't get too riled about the alleged assault on free speech, but I've seen it all before. In fact, I published a book 10 years ago about an identical phenomenon from the 1980s and '90s. Then, as now, a few prestigious colleges were rocked by racist incidents. Students responded with protests, and in a few cases universities responded with policies that earned the ire of commentators. What's striking, however, is how little we've learned about covering and interpreting these events. Then, as now, there are three conspicuous errors in the coverage and commentary.

Anecdotes do not make a movement

Much of the current coverage is rehashing an October article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic, in which they described American college students as "coddled," unable to engage in debate and "demanding protection from words and ideas they don't like." It's certainly a provocative story, but like much of the coverage of college activities or regulation, it's based largely on anecdote and doesn't purport to have surveyed the state of affairs at the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. It's also important to consider the source. Lukianoff directs the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is hardly a neutral entity. The federal judge who first ruled against a college speech code — and whose decision FIRE supports — has pronounced the organization's founders as engaged in a "diatribe" and "jeremiad." FIRE itself has described its mission as "defend[ing] and sustain[ing] individual rights at America's increasingly repressive and partisan colleges and universities."

So, even if Lukianoff and Haidt are right, it's not because they've truly surveyed campuses, and it's certainly not because they don't have an agenda to advance. Their work harkens back to a different writer: conservative activist Dinesh D'Souza, whose 1991 book, Illiberal Education, decried a cultural of political correctness on America's campuses. However, for all its fomenting about college radicals, D'Souza had information on just five campuses.

Free speech isn't really threatened

What makes the stories at Yale and Missouri so engaging is that we have online video of students, and in one case an instructor, seeking to shut down campus debate or press coverage they oppose. In one video, a Yale student tells an administrator she doesn't want to debate the propriety of particular arguments; instead, she wants to talk about the pain those statements bring her. And, of course, another video shows students and then a professor trying to prevent a photographer from taking pictures of an event on public grounds. In words that will follow her online for years to come, the professor calls for "muscle" to remove the reporter from the protest site. It's everything that makes a good story: conflict, race and a duel with the press all captured on video.

There is every reason to disagree with the Missouri professor, and I worry, too, about college students who are reluctant to consider controversial ideas. But these incidents are far from proof of an agenda to censure speech on college campuses. If anything, they're evidence of a larger debate we're having in American law and society about the bounds of expression and the control of culture. Our civil rights laws prevent severe or pervasive "conduct" directed against another when the conduct is both objectively discriminatory and subjectively objectionable to the target. Sometimes known as "hostile environment harassment," this prohibition has been extended to schools under Title IX.

What's confusing is that conduct can sometimes include speech, and we don't have a bright line for when speech is so severe or pervasive that it's discriminatory. So, we continue to play out this puzzle in public settings. The students protesting at Yale are saying, in effect, that the speech they oppose is not only objectionable but that it also creates a racially hostile environment on campus. I think the students are wrong in their ultimate application, but their argument makes sense; severe and pervasive racist expression not only creates a hostile learning environment, but it is actually incompatible with free and open dialogue.

Plus, it's not like they came to their position out of the blue. In a 2009 survey of entering college students, two-thirds said that "colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus." That's before they've even set foot on campus, so they're picking up the view somewhere else. Where? Perhaps from online providers, whose terms of use prohibit the posting of content that "victimizes, harasses or degrades" another on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation, among others. What about from newspapers, which turn away issue ads that "disparage a group on the basis of its religion or ethnicity"? And, let's not forget the latest "controversy" — Starbucks's decision to remove the snowflake on its holiday coffee cups. Anyone who boycotts Starbucks for this alleged "war on Christmas" is effectively saying that a company's choice of a plain red cup is disparaging his or her religious beliefs. Somehow, that seems a little less critical than racist attacks.

Missing the forest for the trees because the trees make easier copy

It's easy to beat up on colleges. Not only is it entertaining to take down elite institutions, but conversely, we also expect colleges to safeguard and advance our society's most central values — like free speech. And here, with some of the Missouri activists protesting the very news coverage of their activities, it's all the easier for reporters and commentators to fall back on a reflexive storyline of censorship versus free speech.

But, in turning the attention to speech restrictions, we miss the larger story of what led to student activism in the first place. Back in the 1980s, students of color protested against the "'soft racism' of jeers, affronts and slights," and yet 30 years later, we're still talking about the same behavior. To be sure, we now have different names for it, like implicit bias and microagressions, but when the student body president at Missouri reports multiple racist slurs hurdled at him, when a feces-drawn swastika appears on a dorm wall, heck, when the police make arrests for death threats against African-American students, it's evident that colleges still have more to do in repelling racism and hateful acts.

And, just like the attitudes about speech restrictions, the problems of campus racism find their roots in society at large. We've seen the horrific videos that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement, but even now, the leading Republican candidate for president, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPolice say man dangling off Trump Tower Chicago demanding to speak with Trump Fauci says he was 'absolutely not' surprised Trump got coronavirus after Rose Garden event Biden: Trump 'continues to lie to us' about coronavirus MORE, is openly promoting President Eisenhower's "Operation Wetback" of the 1950s to deport undocumented immigrants to Mexico while calling the Missouri protests "disgusting." What's next from him, "Mission Mickey" to return the Irish?

Come on. These are serious issues, and they warrant serious treatment. We're seeing it at many schools, where effective college leaders repudiate hateful taunts while committing to their school's mission of open dialogue. Mindful educators and administrators understand — even if political pundits do not — that it is possible to balance free speech with opposition to racist attacks. They also understand that American society's enduring racism remains present on college campuses, that it's difficult to address and that sometimes the responses will fail. But, just like 25 years ago, there is no great politically correct cabal to censor campus speech, and the challenging task of rooting out racism is diverted and undercut by such claims. History may repeat itself, but our interpretation need not.

Gould is a professor of public affairs and law at American University and author of the book Speak No Evil: The Triumph of Hate Speech Regulation.