By Terence Zhao
As the protests rage on at Mizzou, Yale, Ithaca and Claremont McKenna, so many commentators and publications have jumped in, guns blazing, to denounce the protests at the top of their lungs, arguing that the “safe spaces” that the students call for are nothing but a means of stifling free speech.
But even though this article is about the protests I won’t be talking about the safe spaces. To do so would be to contribute to the biased media coverage. To do so would be, as the media has been, focusing on a red herring, and to be distracted from the what the protests are really about — the racism.
We can debate the merits of safe spaces and free speech all day long, but surely, there can be no debate that we have a serious problem when there are people who feel comfortable yelling “N—–” at African-Americans in broad daylight (at Mizzou), right? Surely, there can be no debate that a dean of students shouldn’t tell a minority student that she doesn’t “fit the mold” of her school (Claremont McKenna), right? Surely, there is no debate that everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, should be able to study in their room, at their university, without receiving relentless death threats (Mizzou again), right? Surely, there is no debate that no one should have to worry about being lynched by the KKK in the year 2015, right?
All of the above have happened. But chances are, you haven’t heard about these incidents because they’ve been drowned out amidst the safe space debate.
At this point, I would like to reference a fairly significant piece of the history of The Daily: a 1992 column written by now-Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) about his experiences of being racially profiled in the wake of the Rodney King incident.
This is not the first time we’ve remembered this article. We reprinted it back in 2013, and it is back again now. The reason why this article keeps coming back is because it is timeless, in the worst way possible, because while it may have been written in 1992, it could just as easily be written in 2002, or 2012, or — God help us — 2022. Sure, the references change: Cory Booker talked about Rodney King, and since then, we’ve talked about Oscar Grant, we’ve talked about Trayvon Martin, we’ve talked about Michael Brown, we’ve talked about Tamir Rice.
And now we’re talking about Mizzou.
But what hasn’t changed for each of these incidents is the narrative, and what always crushes me. Every case has a caveat — a reason their death doesn’t “count.” For Rodney King, it was the high-speed chase that came before his arrest, for Trayvon Martin, it was some nebulous accusations about being a “thug,” and so on. And that caveat is all that’s ever talked about.
Today, for Mizzou, the caveat is that we college students are performing an “infantile” (in the words of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson) and “disgusting” (in the words of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump) attack against the sacred right of free speech. And so, all the attention gets fixated upon a comparatively unimportant issue: Are the student protesters attacking free speech or not?
Meanwhile, the kind of stigma and racism that Booker so eloquently sets out in his piece, and that so many men and women in this country must endure each and every day — the whole reason that any of these protests began in the first place — is never acknowledged, never discussed and, of course, never fixed, and the issues that Booker points out were as depressingly unaddressed in 1992 as they are today in 2015, more than two decades later.
Each time we add another name, another incident, to the list, there’s a glimmer of hope in me that maybe, this could be it. That maybe, instead of simply picking out some ridiculous caveat and using it as an excuse to once again dismiss the discrimination that people of color in this country face, this is finally going to be the time that we take a stand and fight against racism, not cower away from it… And so again, I hope, and hope.
Surely, we can take a stand against people who feel comfortable yelling “N—–” at African-Americans in broad daylight, right? Surely, we can take a stand against a dean of students who tells a minority student that she doesn’t “fit the mold” of her school, right? Surely, we can take a stand and fight for the right of everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, to study in their room, at their university, without having death threats phoned to them, right? Surely, we can take a stand and fight so that no one should have to worry about being lynched by the KKK in the year 2015, right?
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.