Critics of the Black Lives Matter movement and its associated racial justice protests on college campuses believe free speech is under attack. Activists have been dubbed whiny, hypersensitive “crybullies” who silence others by calling out racism.
Black collegians are exercising their rights to speak out against racism and to demand more inclusive, less dehumanizing learning environments. The outrage about a new era of “political correctness” fails to understand how black students, faculty, and staff at predominantly white institutions have felt for centuries that their freedom to speak out against campus racism has been effectively suppressed.
I have spent my academic career conducting research on black undergraduate students’ experiences, including a recently published study on racist stereotypes black men face at institutions where they are persistently underrepresented. In addition, college presidents and other administrators annually hire researchers from the center I direct at the University of Pennsylvania to assess their campuses’ racial climates. We write reports to institutions that include our findings and recommendations. At too many schools I have studied, professors have accused black students of plagiarism because their papers were so well written. Racial epithets have been painted on black students’ residence hall doors, and nooses have been hung around campuses. Their peers in predominantly white fraternities have denied black students membership on the basis of race, chanted the N-word, and hosted blackface and racist theme parties parodying their cultures.
In my interviews and focus groups with college students of color, a surprising number say they remain silent about these and other threats to their sense of belonging on campuses where they pay the same tuition and fees as their white peers. Where were the critics who now see free speech under siege at universities when people of color were being silenced?
Protests on campuses across the nation since last November signify an unmuting of black collegians. They are suddenly speaking more loudly about the everyday racism they experience in classrooms and elsewhere on campus. Student activists are not attempting to shut down conversations at their universities. In fact, it is the exact opposite — they aim to raise the consciousness of white professors, administrators, campus police officers and peers. They want more dialogue, not less. In protests at Yale University, the University of Missouri, Princeton University, and elsewhere, black students exercised their First Amendment rights to speak freely about what they experience on campus. Are their white classmates’ and professors’ rights somehow more valuable?
Black activists are saying to whites on their campuses, “You deserve to know how I experienced what you just said or did to me. Perhaps knowing will ensure you don’t similarly harm or offend others in the future.” I do not hear students of color saying, “You are racist, now shut up. Stop talking.” Instead, what often happens is that being called racist instantly paralyzes white people, and they withdraw themselves from the conversation. They shut themselves down. They stop talking. But that doesn’t mean their freedom of speech has been denied.
When we ask students of color who participate in our studies what corrective actions they want administrators to take on their campuses, they say nothing about wanting professors fired, peers expelled or campus speech codes more stringently enforced. They tell us they want to be heard, understood and taken seriously. They want white people to recognize the harmful effects of their words and actions. They want greater inclusion of culturally diverse perspectives in the curriculum, more resources for ethnic studies programs and cultural centers, more people of color in professorships and senior administrative roles. They want educators on their campuses to be more highly skilled at teaching diverse student populations and fostering inclusive learning environments where every student feels respected. They want names of slave owners removed from buildings and statues of white supremacists taken down. In the overwhelming majority of cases, black activists are not demanding that campuses punish speech–code violators. Lists of demands students have presented their campus leaders over the past few months confirm this.
A recent national study from the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute forecasts more campus activism, as a record-number of first-year students surveyed indicated that they expect to participate in protests. In comparison to respondents from other racial groups, black freshmen most expect to have their voices heard through campus demonstrations. I can only hope their speech rights are not threatened by those who refuse to listen to, learn from, and sometimes debate with them the contentious question of what constitutes racial harm. Blacks and other students of color deserve the right to call out racism when they experience it on their campuses. Their lives and their voices matter just as much as others’.