This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms.
Reading op-eds on campus racism and free speech, Black, Latinx, Asian American and Native American readers expect to be gaslit. It comes with the territory. And Joe Cohn’s piece, "Colleges Shouldn't Revoke Admissions Offers," doesn’t disappoint, as he argues against revoking the admission of racist students. To believe Cohn’s premise that "there may be no better setting to confront our societal problems than in the classrooms and public squares of our college campuses" is to believe an assumption not in evidence. To make this assumption, you have to be intentionally myopic, ahistorical and ignore the existence of systemic racism.
I do not.
Cohn’s argument for admitting racist students centers around two premises: the belief that consequences for having racist views, prior to arriving on campus, isn’t an effective deterrent. And that racist students, once admitted, don’t contribute to "creating a discriminatory, hostile environment." I disagree on both counts. But let’s start with Cohn’s second premise.
In Cohn’s world, the racist student is rational, if misguided, and ultimately benefits from being on a campus that’s "hardly the equivalent of the Birmingham, Ala., of 1963." In other words, the racist student just needs exposure to progressive viewpoints, and they’ll change.
But this point of view disconnects the racist student from the systemic racism that the college campuses foster by allowing them to be on campus in the first place. And it’s ironic that Cohn picked Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 as his linchpin to demonstrate the difference between campuses of yesteryear and today, as it’s a useful example.
In the fall of 1963, Tau Kappa Epsilon at California State University, Long Beach, was suspended for singing, “Bye Bye Black Boy, You Better Play It Cool, or Else We’ll Bomb Your Sunday School.” The song referred to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little Black girls were murdered.
In 2015, the University of Oklahoma chapter of a fraternity was booted off campus for singing, “There Will Never Be a Nigger in SAE, You Can Hang Him From a Tree, but He’ll Never Sign With Me, There Will Never Be a Nigger in SAE.”
Fifty-two years apart. An aberration? Hardly. Thousands of documented racist acts on college campuses, just in the past 20 years, have been reported. From nooses to KKK uniforms. From Black students beaten at the University of Arizona to the murder of Richard Collins at the University of Maryland. And unreported racist incidents probably range into the tens of thousands.
To not recognize that the college campus of today, at the structural level, needs the same type of deconstruction as police reform when it comes to systemic racism, is malpractice, even if you’re arguing for free speech. It’s not about whether the manifestation of racism in 1963 and 2020 is different. It’s about recognizing the systemic racist continuity between those two dates.
To do that deconstruction, free speech advocates must also be truthful and recognize that the First Amendment has been used as a bludgeon against minority students, particularly when it came to freedom of association. For example, white fraternities and sororities used the freedom of association to discriminate against admitting minorities, fostering the systemic campus racism of today.
Now to Cohn’s first premise, where he doesn’t believe in consequences for racist students, all because of the possibility they become "free speech martyrs." To that I say one thing …
I don’t care about their martyrdom.
From the point of view of minority students, targeted by these racists constantly, no racist should be guaranteed a seat at a college or university. Cohn uses the example of a 14-year-old being rejected for racist comments, while not recognizing that racism on high school campuses is as virulent, and often mirrors, what we see on college campuses. And why shouldn’t you see that? Racism is systemic.
Once at the university, racists are rightfully protected by the First Amendment, at least at public universities. But if the university is proactively trying to deconstruct the systemic racism on campus, it will be proactive versus reactive.
This is a good thing, because free speech is a right. However, admission to a university is a privilege. The two are not the same.
Too often, minority students are voiceless as to who is admitted into the campus community, with the university’s myopia around racism leaving them vulnerable to these racists who target them with psychological and physical violence. Minorities are not centered, and in fact, they’re often marginalized. And that marginalization is what racist students exploit, knowing a college environment is nonracist at best, hostile at worse. So, minority students protest in order to have that voice.
But here’s the issue. It is not the responsibility of minority students to tolerate the continued existence of racists on their campuses. It is not the responsibility of minority students to change the views of those who’d denigrate them. And the racist can’t be a martyr if they’re not on the campus in the first place.
College campuses, like the rest of society, must recognize that in order to be antiracist, you need to deconstruct the privileges that racists rely upon to thrive. This isn’t controversial speech or even bigoted speech. This is speech that says minorities are not human beings. It’s the type of speech that justifies the killing of human beings. We need to stop rewarding the racist with the golden ticket of college admission if we are to deconstruct systemic campus racism.