Over the past month, we’ve seen discussion and action across the country and in our own community addressing the issue of race on college campuses. Much criticism has been directed toward this movement by some who increasingly view the debate as one between free speech rights and racial justice. Not only is this dichotomy false, it reflects the divide that exists between the freedom of speech by white people and speech by members of minority groups .
While freedom of speech is a right in the United States for people of all races, there is still a great disparity of influence between white speech and speech by minority groups. People of all races are equally free to say whatever they want, but they are not equally heard by those who can effect meaningful change .
So when we hear students requesting, and ultimately enforcing, safe spaces where they can discuss their ideas for racial justice without fear of social retribution, they are not necessarily trying to create a university system that obliterates forms of free speech. Rather, they are looking to establish social spaces with new sets of rules where their ideas are respected and validated in the same way that the ideas of whites are, because students of color have continually felt marginalized in the current system.
It is too often forgotten that it was not that long ago that people of color were excluded from most universities, and, as such, were only co-opted in the mid-20th century into a system designed by and for whites. Most U.S. universities were founded in an era before civil equality between the races was established, and many still proudly bear the symbols of antebellum oppression and ignore the human costs of the slavery that built these institutions. Why should students of color feel indebted to a system that was never made for them and offers no reasonable avenues for changing its governing rules?
Universities speak proudly about improving campus diversity, but they are not so loud when speaking about the ways they are changing the system to represent the needs and wants of this changing community. This is because universities were forced to improve their acceptance rates for students of color but have never been required to reflect this change in their power structures.
The result is that our current universities benefit from the presence of students of color, in terms of the financing that can come with achieving measures of campus diversity according to performance-based government funding, and in terms of the prestige that comes with claiming to have a racially diverse campus. But universities are not obliged to return benefits to these same students by meaningfully responding to their demands. Their beaming faces of various colors can be used to fill admissions websites and pamphlets, while their desires and pains can easily be ignored.
Ultimately, this fact reflects the severe lack of a fair and open governing structure at most universities, which is particularly true at BC, as it has no democratic or representative means to incorporate student or faculty input into its governing system. Racial injustice puts into sharp relief this lack of a shared governing structure, which would meaningfully allocate to faculty and students institutional power and allow them to contribute to the rules that set the course of the University and address the issues that matter to them.
Safe spaces and protests demanding racial justice are the only options for students of color who have been offered no other means of effectively having their voices heard and impacting university policies. While some schools , like Harvard University, have acted to implement some of the demands of these activists, and others like Mizzou have been pressured to do so, many universities have little or no shared governing structures that provide students and faculty a stake in the university system that they must join to receive a decent education.
In creating these spaces of revolution and action, students aren’t trying to limit free speech. They are setting the rules by which marginalized voices can be meaningfully heard. For a moment, they are able to say they refuse to buy into a system they have had no input in creating. For a moment, they are able to say that they will not accept the bargain they are being coerced into: a liberal university education for the silencing of their voices. For a moment, they have a stake in a system they can believe in .
These are but moments, and they are not sustainable in their current form. But it is possible to progress toward advancements in racial justice by giving students and faculty greater means to be heard at the highest level of university governing structures, making the university responsive to those for whom it exists and thus offering to all a greater stake in its future.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins