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Black Protesters Have Reinvigorated Campus Activism

Across the country, student protesters joined the fight for racial progress.

Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Last Friday, Rick Brattin, a Republican state representative from Missouri prefiled a bill, H.B. 1743, at his statehouse. Its declared purpose: To mandate “that any college athlete on scholarship who refuses to play for a reason unrelated to health shall have his or her scholarship revoked.” Which to student-athletes means shut up and play. While I can’t vouch for Brattin’s interest in collegiate sports—he did not respond to a request for comment—the target of his ludicrous bill couldn’t be more obvious. 

In early November, the Mizzou football team decided to use its considerable leverage and go on strike in order to force the resignation of University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe over his lackadaisical response to racism, sexism, and other bigotry on campus. A graduate student, Jonathan Butler, had already been on a hunger strike for nearly a week to force the same outcome. But when the 30 black players on the team—soon joined by their non-black teammates—announced they would neither practice nor play until Wolfe was gone, it only took two days before he wrote his resignation letter. At stake was the $1 million that the Mizzou Tigers were scheduled to make for playing Brigham Young five days later; Wolfe was forced out, along with the provost at the university’s main campus in Columbia, Missouri. Additional threats followed on the social media service Yik Yak from two yo-yos from nearby schools, but the students had won.

Brattin aims to prevent that from ever happening again. He told CBS Sports that the team’s conduct was “completely horrific,” blaming the players for damaging the team’s brand. Another Missouri lawmaker, Kurt Schaefer, is trying to get his fellow state senators to sign a letter addressed to the Mizzou chancellor demanding the firing of a Mizzou professor who put her hands on a photojournalist covering protests on the day of Wolfe’s departure. But these distractions will not erode the leverage that students of color have gained this year, whether through athletic standing or their ability to mobilize national support online, as the #ConcernedStudent1950 hashtag did for the Mizzou protesters. In the unlikely event that they succeed, these two lawmakers stand to curtail student freedoms, but they’ll further inflame the passions of young activists who, in 2015, took the boldness of Black Lives Matter and brought it to the ivory tower. And one year after the city of Ferguson ignited during the seminal protest of America’s newly reinvigorated civil rights movement, one of Missouri’s most prominent college towns was the site where college athletes threw their lot in with the modern struggle for black liberation and dignity. 

The Mizzou protesters were hardly alone. Students rose up in solidarity at New York University, Ithaca College, and more. The University of North Carolina scrubbed the name of a Klansman off a building. Georgetown activists successfully lobbied for the names of two slave traders to be similarly removed, and black Princeton students called out Woodrow Wilson’s racism, because his name graces a campus institution—these young protesters found themselves fighting the power and the popular narrative. Nowhere was this more evident than at Yale, where protesters earned concessions from the university president and scorn from the commentariat after a lecturer took issue with a university advisory about avoiding culturally offensive Halloween costumes. Her letter, which apparently kept none of the potentially offended in mind, asked whether there was still room in a collegiate environment “to be a little bit obnoxious…a little bit inappropriate or provocative, or yes offensive?”

One could argue that the response Christakis got from black Yale student protesters was all four of those things. They called for the firing of Christakis and her husband, Nicolas, the college house master; in a widely distributed video, one student, a young black woman, loudly cursed at him. But as Jelani Cobb noted in The New Yorker, the fact that she was inarticulate and vulgar in expressing her anger raised a lot more hackles among my fellow members of the media than did the death threats and harassment that Yale student later received—ironically, for exercising the very thing some argued she was trying to limit: The right to free speech.

Overall, student protests this year plainly sought to foster debate. The simple fact that students injected their voices into discussions about university leadership and culture forced the conversation to expand to include them. Too often, though, pundits and gadflies distracted us with accusations that the Yale student activists sought not so much respect and equality for themselves as the censorship of others. Which isn’t true: Student protests in 2015 illuminated the fact that the right to free speech needs to be exercised with greater responsibility and care. 

White emotional fragility has long been prioritized over black pain and anger in the American public sphere, as has the demand of many white people to be able to racially offend at will. That’s why we saw the students at Yale and elsewhere deemed soft and fragile for complaining about racially offensive Halloween costumes and university institutions that were named after men whose lives were an affront to black personhood and citizenship. This attitude needs to change; student protesters recognized that.

In winning victories and sparking national debate, these young activists not only introduced many to the validity of complaints about “microaggressions,” but they also asked us to explore beyond superficial racial diversity. And it mattered that black students took action this year—the year before their very presence again goes challenged before the Supreme Court, because of Abigail Fisher’s interminable, well-financed quest to validate her own mediocrity.

The struggle black students face cannot be divorced from that case, particularly when two Supreme Court justices, Antonin Scalia and John Roberts, said such dumb stuff about America’s racial reality. Scalia argued that “African American students might belong at less rigorous schools than their white peers,” echoing the debunked “mismatch” theory; Roberts pondered the value of a student of color in a science class (and not, say, Spanish or African-American history, where cultural identity is a central topic). 

Now, we know that a more diverse learning environment helps everyone, and that black students overall rise to the challenge that a more rigorous academic environment presents. But in challenging their non-black neighbors in that campus space to be more responsible and responsive, the protesters this year demonstrated the real value of diversity. It isn’t about black students believing they belong at such a school. It’s about white students and administrators realizing that their lives are enriched when we all learn from each another. In this moment in our nation’s never-ending racial dilemma, that’s essential to understand.

The safety of black people—emotional and physical—is challenged in so many ways, thanks largely to the effects of structural racism. And when we complain about it, or seek legal justice, we’re often met with ridicule or demands for evidence. Because our colleges are microcosms of our society, it happens there too; I was never called a “nigger” until I got to the Ivy League. We should congratulate these students for speaking out, and encourage their efforts to effect societal change.