Correction: An earlier version of this column stated incorrectly that the 1984 Supreme Court decision Roberts v. United States Jaycees ended an exemption for private clubs under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The decision, which dealt with a Minnesota anti-discrimination law, held that states could bar certain types of private groups from discriminating but did not invalidate the provision of the federal law.
Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.
The mid-20th-century gains of the civil rights movement rested on an implicit bargain: The pursuit of equality in civil and political rights could be advanced only at the expense of the pursuit of social equality. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, for instance, included an exemption for private clubs protecting them from the requirements of non-discrimination law. That bargain holds no longer. That is the fundamental meaning of this week’s events at the University of Missouri and Yale University.
The issues of free speech matter, too, but they are leading people in the wrong direction, away from the deepest issue. A recent University of Chicago report on free speech gets it right: “The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” This idea protects not only those who wish to wear blackface for Halloween but also those being skewered in the media for having called for the resignation of specific institutional leaders. On this subject, I would say, there’s little to see here. Move along.
The real issue is how to think about social equality.
A re-orientation of our cultural life toward the embrace of such an ideal has been creeping up on us ever since Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a concurring opinion in the 1984 case Roberts v. United States Jaycees, which narrowed that exemption for private clubs. To achieve social equality, however, against a backdrop of centuries of racial social subordination demands not only the vision of prophets who can imagine that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood. It calls, too, for cultural transformation, for a revolution, even, in our ordinary habits of interaction.
The fight over cultural transformation is being waged on the grounds of how to deal with offensiveness. We all have a beautiful, wonderful democratic right to be offensive. Yet offensiveness is not, in fact, innocuous. So how can we thread this needle?
The issue is not, of course, about single, specific insults, of which we all have tales, and which we all have to learn to take in stride. I, too, was called “n-” on campus in the lovely, deep late-night dark of Princeton in the spring of 1993. The point, rather, is that, in the case of race, such insults represent a rising to the surface of what psychologists call “implicit bias,” a general attribution in this country of lesser value to the lives of dark-skinned people than to those with lighter skin. Psychologists have found that not only non-blacks but also blacks harbor implicit bias against blacks. And implicit bias does its dirty work in any number of contexts: hiring decisions; policing intuitions; school discipline; teacher-student mentoring; elections; and so on.
When my father was running for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate in California in the early 1990s, I remember handing out fliers in an Orange County mall. One flier had only a photo of my African American father on it. The other had the faces of all three candidates; the other two were white. I could not get people to take the flier showing only my father’s face.
That was a long time ago, of course.
But the project of cultural transformation is still very much with us. In Missouri, we had an institution that was not trying. In Yale, we had an institution that was trying. (Notably, Yale tried by doing just what is demanded by a respect for free speech: not issuing requirements but asking questions.) Both have storms on campus.
How do you transform communities and environments that were developed to resonate with the aesthetic tastes and ways of life of one demographic group when they are meant to be homes equally welcoming to all? How do you adjust social habits that have flowed out of long traditions of hierarchy to perform nobly at the table of brotherhood?
The seriousness of these questions is real, and it is reasonable and necessary for the institutions of civil society to address them. I think that in all of this controversy we have missed the biggest story of all: Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler starved himself for a week in pursuit of social equality. His action accurately measures the significance of the goal.