Two teenage girls who wore “Make America Great Again” hats to Howard University last weekend are making a play to become the latest countrywide crusaders for free speech. Good luck with that.
The Pennsylvania high school students, who stopped by the historically black university for a bite to eat during a school trip to Washington, strolled into Howard’s campus dining hall Saturday decked out in pro-presidential apparel they had purchased the day before. It did not go over well.
“We were not even through the front door to get through the cafeteria, and a man, a black man, walked … through and took my friend Sarah’s hat right off her head,” one told Buzzfeed on Monday. Another man, she said, cursed at her.
The girl took to Twitter soon after the altercation to complain about her treatment at the hands of the Howard students. “What happened to my friend and I today was absolutely pathetic,” she pronounced. “These are the people who are racist and disrespectful.”
The school responded to the incident with an inscrutable Twitter thread. “This occurrence and the responses on social media that followed emphasized the need for and importance of human interaction,” one installment read. The Twitter account for Howard’s dining hall was more forthright: “We will take any action necessary to ensure that HU students feel safe& comfortable in our dining spaces. The group is no longer on campus.” (Contrary to some reports, Howard did not “kick out” the tour group. The girls have said that they left of their own accord.)
Removing the hat from the girl’s head was over the line. But it’s secondary to a larger story about the two parties’ competing claims to speech and safety on Howard’s campus. Trump supporters online have spoken out against Howard’s supposed censorship — and smirked at the way two teenagers’ actions have “triggered” the school’s “snowflake” students. Those students and their defenders have replied that the girls were asking for trouble when they showed up at the school in full Trumpian regalia just a week after the president seemed to side with white supremacists in Charlottesville.
The girls’ answer to that? Not only did they not know Howard was a historically black college — their teachers didn’t either.
“I don’t even think our advisers really knew. We just thought of Howard University, we know it’s historic, so we kinda went,” one said.
The most charitable conclusion here is that this was a very bad field trip. Less kind, but also possible, is that these girls knew what they were doing. They just wanted to see what would happen.
Even shameless provocateurs have found defenders not only among those who share their views but among free-speech advocates across the political spectrum. When the University of California at Berkeley’s campus initially cancelled a speech by Milo Yiannopoulous, for example, the college caught flak for shutting out controversy to shelter overly sensitive students.
But those who criticized Berkeley, or who cried foul when Middlebury College students shouted Charles Murray out of an auditorium, shouldn’t be so eager to leap to the defense of the MAGA-clad field-trippers. And it’s not so hard to see why.
As stifling to debate as the “safe space” argument can be at schools across the country, Howard is one of the few examples of the term at its purest and most persuasive. “Safety” as many students today use the word has little to do with physical harm and more to do with emotional discomfort. Safety at Howard, from its founding, has meant, well, safety.
Howard was chartered soon after the Civil War to provide a place for African Americans to study without fear not just of racist words, but of racist acts — of people stopping them from going to school at all, of people discriminating against them when they were there, and, yes, of people trying to hurt them. That mission has lasted for over a century, through the civil rights movement, when Howard was a hotbed of student organizing, up until today. And it has always been necessary: As recently as 2015, students at the campus received slur-laden death threats based solely on their skin color.
Howard students did not simply disagree with the teens who appeared on their campus. The those-were-the-days Trumpian worldview the girls were advertising was anathema to everything Howard has always stood for. And the white supremacists Trump continues to court are exactly the people Howard was designed to protect its students from and equip them to counter.
Saturday’s run-in was about more than the president and his alt-right acolytes. It was about the history of an institution that has always been a place where black students could say what they believed without fear of racist reprisal. On Saturday, that’s exactly what they did.
As many Howard students have already asked about their young visitors, what else did they expect?