Over the past few weeks, a number of college campuses have been buzzing with student discontent. From coast to coast, thousands of young people ― mostly millennials ― have made their voices heard. While the majority of these individuals have been students of color, a number of White students have joined in the protests as well.
Indeed, to witness such intense levels of civil disobedience one would have to travel back to the late 1960s, when student protests over racial discrimination, inequality and the Vietnam War roiled college campuses. Well, it seems that history is repeating itself and the more things change, they more they have remained the same or have transformed at a snail’s pace.
Situations that were thought to be issues and events of a distant past have suddenly reappeared and awakened the many campuses with an unapologetic degree of urgency and restlessness not seen in more than half a century. To paraphrase Black intellectual cultural critic extraordinaire James Baldwin, the fire next time has indeed arrived. Things have gotten tense and the students, their faculty administrative and in some cases, athletic allies (student-athletes), have aligned in unison in an effort to combat what they see as searing and inhuman injustices permeating their respective institutions.
The situation at the University of Missouri at Columbia became so volatile. The nation’s heartland is not the only region where racial discontent has reared its vile and intolerant head. Prestigious and renowned New England-based Yale University has also witnessed a season of racial discord this fall semester as Black students have confronted administrators, the college president, Peter Salovey, and have taken their protests off campus to the streets of New Haven and to the national media to air their frustrations and concerns.
As anyone who has been monitoring these situations is aware, student unrest has not been confined to these two campuses. Scores of colleges and universities from Georgetown to Harvard to Virginia Commonwealth University have been affected by student protests.
The complaints from students of color at these institutions are both similar and distinct. Blatant disrespect of Black and Latino/a students on campus; numerous daily microaggressions; racial slurs; inadequate health care facilities and resources to aid and assist students of color; hostile, condescending inept or indifferent administrators; the deplorable lack of Black students, faculty and senior-level administrators on campus; and the list goes on and on. While these are serious and students and their supporters alike are correct in drawing attention to these shortcomings, the one overriding factor that seems to plague each of these campuses is the issue of race. It is the endemic, problematic and psychologically debilitating factor plaguing numerous institutions of higher learning with a virus for which there seems to be no immediate cure. Indeed, the current prognosis looks grim.
Critics of student protestors have used disparaging terms and levied charges that these students are: coddled, oversensitive, insensitive, lazy, weak, immature and so on. Are some students problematic and unreasonable? Of course, this is probably the case. However, the same charge can be levied at their critics. It should be noted that many of these detractors have not had to deal with the humiliations and onslaughts that have greeted these students on a daily and ongoing basis. One can only wonder how many of those who are denouncing these brave and courageous students would have the wherewithal and fortitude to withstand such mistreatment. Would they be willing to “ignore,” “overlook” “grow a thinker skin” or just “suck it up” as many people who fall into this category seem to suggest of students?
To all those individuals who are arguing in defense of free speech, of course free speech is of paramount importance. No rational person would argue otherwise. However, the fact is that students have been routinely verbally and physically attacked, and in some cases, deliberately marginalized and ignored. They are repeatedly told in multiple ways, both subtle and overt, that they are worthless and unworthy of equality, that systematic and systemic racism does not exist, and that they themselves are largely to blame for the conditions they have inherited or find themselves in.
With free speech comes responsibility and potential consequences. There is nothing immature or childish about asking to be treated with dignity and as a human being. In fact, it is something that should indeed be demanded. We are not talking about trigger warnings here (a policy I oppose).
Students protesting, organizing, utilizing social media, and demanding vibrant and transcending change from institutions that had thought they had successfully and deftly dealt with such issues a long time ago have come to the realization that campus tides have risen well above sea level. A potential typhoon or tsunami may be approaching and cause considerable damage. Time will tell.