From Yale University and Ithaca College to Princeton University and Claremont McKenna College, these past few weeks have put campus protests and demonstrations around the country under a microscope. While Black students and their allies have united to unveil and challenge the prejudice and discrimination that they face in their chosen place of higher learning, many have been asking just what do they want?
The answer is clear: To bring about cultural awareness and justice, now.
But as the protests gain momentum, criticism is bubbling up around the country as protesters have claimed wins in the form of resignations of senior administrators and promises for more resources and better representation for minority groups.
Just weeks ago, Princeton University students urged school officials to rename programs and buildings named for former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson because of his problematic history with segregation and race relations. University President Christopher Eisgruber agreed to consider their demands after protests, which involved a 32-hour sit-in in his office by students associated with the Black Justice League. By the evening following the protest though, more than 500 people had signed a petition denouncing the possibility that Princeton University administrators would reconsider the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name on the campus.
The petition said the students “appreciate the concerns, but oppose the demands of the Black Justice League,” calling for dialogue to include all members of the university community, “not merely those who are the loudest.”
And just like that, the protesters found themselves being protested against.
It seems, at least in the case of Princeton, that there’s a fear that erasing all traces of President Wilson and his history of supporting segregation is the wrong move.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Princeton professor and State Department official, wrote on her Twitter account that talking about Wilson’s complexity is a better choice. “Human complexity. All our idols have feet of clay. All our heroes have dark sides, but they can also do [great] things,” she wrote on Twitter.
It’s true that we’re all complicated, but does that mean we should ignore, or pacify, someone’s legacy of racism?
Dr. Martha Biondi, professor of African-American Studies and History at Northwestern University, and the chair of the department of African-American Studies, thinks actions like the Princeton students calling for Wilson’s name to be removed is not to deny that he existed. Biondi notes that he was rightfully known as a Progressive-era politician, but it’s lesser known that he was an “ardent segregationist who increased racial segregation in federal government employment and facilities.”
“I think the phrase “erasing history” misunderstands the students’ goals of highlighting Princeton and American history, particularly as it pertains to race and racism and the long legacy of slavery,” she tells HelloBeautiful. “Importantly, their activism has had a broader effect than simply raising demands: it has brought serious and sober attention to Princeton’s history. Students are calling for greater, not lesser, attention to the teaching of Princeton history in the classroom and across all dimensions of campus life.”
According to Biondi, taking down the name Woodrow Wilson from buildings and institutes is “not an erasure of history but rather, from the students’ view,” which she argues symbolizes taking responsibility for history.
Biondi also suggested the university add more “accurate language to Princeton brochures and other publications, which tend to celebrate Wilson’s impact in American life, but downplay less flattering aspects of his career.”
Still, while the protests and reactions are making some wonder if the students are going too far, ultimately isn’t questioning authority, confrontation, and in certain cases, defiance, what protest is all about?
“When one’s sense of human dignity is on the line, one can never demand enough,” says Tikia K. Hamilton, a recent History PhD from Princeton. “Furthermore, the demands of Princeton’s Black Justice League and other student protestors align well with America’s democratic traditions, the very basis upon which our nation was built. It is ahistorical to regard their efforts outside of this great American tradition.”
She continued, “Did America’s white founding fathers demand too much when they insisted that the basic rights of freedom be guaranteed under a representative government? Didn’t many actually brand political protest as an extension of one’s “common sense?” Did abolitionists demand too much when they insisted that African-Americans were entitled equally to these same rights, which included a popular right of assembly and petition? Or would it have been better if African-Americans had remained bound inevitably to the hope that their self-proclaimed masters would experience a sudden change of heart?”
Biondi adds that the university and the greater country’s blind praise of politicians like Wilson is reflective of “history that has been erased.”
“These courageous young people are asking us to face it. And for many, that’s a difficult and challenging process. But we shouldn’t shirk from this task simply because it makes us uncomfortable,” says Biondi.
And yet, there are some who are uncomfortable with the way students describe racism, and feel that we may be “overprotecting” student protesters.
Earlier this week, GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz told reporters that student protesters were simply, “pampered teenagers who are scared of an idea that challenges their world view.”
And he’s hardly alone. Jonathan Zimmerman, in his op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, expressed similar sentiments:
“I don’t doubt that African-American students — and other minorities at our colleges — experience routine prejudice and discrimination. We live in a society that is riven by racial stereotypes, distortions and fantasies. As much as I’d like our campuses to be immune from all of that, I know that they are not. Nevertheless, I’m troubled by the psychological idioms our students are using to describe racism, which echo the same paternalism and condescension that Ellison decried. Equally troubling is the much-heard argument that everyone on campus should “validate” minorities’ experience and yield to their demands, lest we harm fragile psyches even further.”
Zimmerman is of the belief that we’ll “demean minority students in the name of protection” if we respond to their every request. ” I support the minority students standing up to the racism that still surrounds them. But I won’t patronize them by “validating” everything they say simply because they feel it. Neither should you.”
Hamilton, however, whose work focuses on the Black movement to desegregate Washington, D.C. schools and balance educational resources pre the Brown v. Bd. Of Education, 1954, agrees that protest helps to ignite change.
She notes that we are seeing this not only in the example of Princeton, but all around the country and especially as a result of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And perhaps unlike Zimmerman, she’d like to see additional efforts towards accountability.
“It is not enough to simply recruit a diverse student pool—although, with African-Americans standing at a mere seven percent of the overall undergraduate student body, there’s much additional work that needs to be done in the area of recruitment to better reflect our nation’s diversity,” Hamilton says. “What we need are increased efforts towards retention…but we must start by listening attentively to the students and not necessarily consultants and out-of-touch administrators who lack qualitative insights about black student experiences.”
When I think about my daughter being a college student in less than 10 years, I hope she has that ‘human complexity’ that former Princeton professor Slaughter speaks of and exercises her right to stand up for and speak about what she believes in, no matter how difficult it is for other’s to hear.