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The Answer Is American History

By Nick F. Barber, Crimson Staff Writer

“Forgetting is a habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in "Between the World and Me."

If you’re watching closely enough, the spirit of the debate surrounding Erika Christakis’s email mirrors the debate we had when Michael Brown was slain and left in the street for hours—or the debates we have each and every time a black life is stolen. These conversations all center on a desire to focus on the specifics of a case, instead of the broader picture. So, we ask questions like, “Was Michael Brown innocent?” and, “Was Erika Christakis’s email worthy of outrage?” while ignoring the circumstances that led to the outrage over both.

We ask these questions because it is easier to focus on Michael Brown’s “criminality” than it is to focus on the conditions that led to his confrontation with Darren Wilson. It is easier to focus on Erika Christakis’s email than it is to focus on the reality of campus life for students of color at American colleges.

The similarity between the coverage of the tragedy in Ferguson and that of the incident at Yale can be traced back to a kind of desperate myopia, exercised by those who can only look narrowly at symptoms, realizing that root causes and institutional arrangements are much too painful to consider.

These deniers are always desperate to maintain some semblance of order, some semblance of rationality in the face of irrational oppression and, as is the case at Yale, Mizzou, Ithaca, and many other colleges, the long-lasting, alienating effects of an American tradition of oppression. When desperation sets in, questions of institutional racism, of un-belonging at an Ivy League campus, of deeply unequal treatment, quickly get subsumed under the easily dispatched, obfuscating power of “unfair regulation of free speech” or “the coddling of the American student mind.”

This is not to say that these issues aren’t important; they are. Christine Lagarde absolutely should have been allowed to speak at Smith College. But the Lagarde incident differs in profound ways from the reaction to Christakis’s email, because students aren’t resisting Christakis’s right to freely express her point of view, but rather her and her husband’s misunderstanding of the real problems. And that’s the issue: The deniers seek to conflate real issues surrounding “coddling”—the kind of problems that President Obama rightly denounced—with the debates surrounding the creation and maintenance of safe and welcoming campus communities for students of color.

We take campus events as if they happened in isolation, viewed through a lens that is decidedly and deliberately narrow. Could you conceivably view these student protests at Yale as a reaction to just one email? Could you see this as merely a debate about a student’s right to choose his or her own Halloween costume? Could you see black and brown students as “crybullies” who have “weaponized [their] coveted status as...victim[s]” if we broadened our lens? These questions are merely red herrings meant to distract you from the questions that really matter.

Because the cold, hard truth of a college’s racial history is always there. It is built into the structures in which black and brown students live: Benjamin Silliman, the namesake of Silliman College at Yale, the locus of our "debate" about free speech, paid for his tuition to Yale by selling two slaves.

Black students and faculty are still massively underrepresented on our college campuses: Nationally, only 4 percent of full-time professors are black. The enrollment gap between white students and students of color has grown since the 1980s.

What this all means is that, in institutional and historical ways, blacks have been and continue to be marginalized and ostracized from and in institutions that were not built for them, but on them. And that is no small point.

When a senior at Yale yelled at Erika Christakis’s husband Nicholas Christakis, in what has now become a viral video, she wasn’t just expressing rage at one email, or his refusal to apologize, but instead, she was yelling, screaming, and kicking to be heard at an institution that doesn’t quite register black voices.

If only he wasn’t so desperate to ignore, justify, defend, she seemed to be saying, he might actually see why we’re upset.

By placing racial injustice on our college campuses in the midst of a debate about free speech, Christakis and others like him have tried to trick you once again. Because it’s not really about free speech; it never was. It’s not about one email. It’s not about one all-white party. It’s not about one university president. The deniers are providing answers to questions that weren’t asked, because the questions that have been asked, by marginalized students at campuses all across this country, are far too hard to answer.

The answer is American history.”

But, as James Baldwin once explained, therein lies our task: “We, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

Nick F. Barber '17, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House.

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