The Friday after Thanksgiving is about as dead a news day as there is. So naturally, the New York Times chose it to publish one of the best op-eds ever addressing the volatile campus race revolts. Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy will restore your faith that there remain some grown-ups in the Academy.
A week ago, someone put slivers of black tape over the faces of most of the African-American professors. I am one of those whose photograph was marked.
Last Thursday, on my way to teach contracts, I received an email from a student who alerted me to the defacement. I saw the taped photos, including my own, right before class. Since then I have been asked repeatedly how I feel about having been targeted by what some deem to be a racial hate crime. Questioners often seem to assume that I should feel deeply alarmed and hurt. I don’t.
He raises the unraisable, the unthinkable, the thoughtful.
The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined. Perhaps the defacer is part of the law school community. But maybe not. Perhaps the defacer is white. But maybe not. Perhaps the taping is meant to convey anti-black contempt or hatred for the African-American professors. But maybe it was meant to protest the perceived marginalization of black professors, or was a hoax meant to look like a racial insult in order to provoke a crisis, or was a rebuke to those who have recently been taping over the law school’s seal, which memorializes a family of slaveholders from colonial times. Some observers, bristling with certainty, insist that the message conveyed by the taping of the photographs is obvious. To me it is puzzling.
What did the black tape incident mean? No one knows. But even if it was intended as a racist act, so what?
A colleague of mine whose portrait was taped over exhibited the right spirit when he jauntily declared that it would take far more than tape to slow him down.
Exactly. While many refuse to consider anything other than the worst, most offensive, most horrible meaning that could be attributed to any act, a grown-up shakes it off rather than curls up in a mewing ball in the corner and cries about it.
Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.
In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization.
So much of the history of fighting racial prejudice in American rests on the shoulders of brave, bold people who took risks of personal harm to challenge the status quo. Some paid for it with their lives. And now students march through the Dartmouth library telling a female student, “fuck your white tears,” and feeling as if they’ve taken a risk and joined the fight. In the Dartmouth library? Because you might get a paper cut?
Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are.
Prof. Kennedy asserts that there are “exceedingly few, if any, institutions in America that can be presumed to be racism free.” I would counter that there are none. Until all our children are a pleasing shade of mocha, there will be racism. Not lynching in a tree by guys with hoods, necessarily, but secret suspicions manifested in the occasional head shake or grimace, the lingering look you wouldn’t give someone of your own race. Racism may be black tape, or a voice inside your head, but it’s still there. And yet:
Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved.
Or in the less-tepid language used outside the Academy, toughen up you fragile little teacups. If you want to fight the Black Lives Matter battle, do it where the cops are killing black people, not by demanding that buildings be renamed after a quick march through the safest place on campus, the libe. Stop picking up pebbles in search of micro-aggressions, and use your voice to end the real racism that your less-privileged brothers and sisters face on the streets of St. Louis and Baltimore.
Don’t spit on the sacrifices of your forebears by whining that your biggest complaint is a housemaster who expects you to possess the level of intellectual prowess you believe you’re due. Grow up. Toughen up. Get real.
I haven’t always been kind to the Ivory Tower crowd, who I’ve described as a bunch of cowards too wimpy to call out the intellectually dishonest, the irrational and deceitful, who prey upon illiberal progressivism, for fear that they will be called racists or sexists, and shunned by their fellow academics. To question, if not challenge, the orthodoxy is to put one’s career at risk. Can’t do that, I’ve been told.
Well, the faculty of Harvard Law School has demonstrated the moxie to stand up to the unglued. And in this brilliant and comprehensive op-ed, Randall Kennedy has proven himself worthy of both his chair at Harvard and the respect that comes of being the grown-up in a room filled with idiot children. Maybe there is a good reason for HLS being as well-regarded as it is. Maybe the boldness of its faculty comes of their being at the epitome of academia. Whatever, thank you, Professor Kennedy, for telling your students what they need to hear.