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The (reckless) wind of freedom blows

As I stood at the History Corner for the Charles Murray protest, bracing the biting wind of a Thursday night, I realized how relieved I was that the protest was happening in the first place. To me, in choosing to be there, black, white, brown and Asian students alike conveyed one resounding message: That students of all races belong here at Stanford – though, for some of us, our right to be here is often challenged by the outside world.

Two weeks ago, Charles Murray was brought to Stanford’s campus to discuss populism and democracy, but the reason why he is known to be a “controversial thinker” is clear. In his most famous work, “The Bell Curve,” Murray, together with co-author Richard J. Hernstein, argues that black people report lower national scores in IQ than whites due to immutable genetic differences across races. Despite his expressed worry that readers will misconstrue his “data” to “unjustified extremes,” Murray and Hernstein are resolute: “There are differences between races, and they are the rule, not the exception” (“The Bell Curve,” 272).

Some maintain that Murray’s invitation to campus allowed the student body to confront his ideas “head-on”; in fact, the second installment of Cardinal Conversations did not invite Murray to defend these views explicitly. Instead, Murray’s recent work, “Coming Apart,” and his assessment of “the growing cultural divide between America’s upper and lower classes” constituted the focal topics of discussion. These topics were chosen as such, despite the fact that, as one Stanford Politics writer noted, “Coming Apart” is “by all appearances uninspiring.”

Let me be clear before continuing on: I agree with the practical thrust of the sentiment that has defended Murray’s invitation (and those of speakers like him) to campus at its core – exposing students to a wide range of ideas at university might help them clarify their own views. But in the university’s insistence in maintaining this “ideal” – that is, a marketplace of ideas where all speakers are equally respected – it often forgets how coded this ideal has become.  

This coding is exemplified in its asymmetrical impacts, whereby students of color (and Muslim students in the case of Robert Spencer’s appearance) shoulder the burden of opposing the empirically unsubstantiated claims that controversial speakers hold. Students take on that burden, while the university’s administrators remain complacent, confident that they have done their job. But as Professor David Palumbo-Liu so aptly put it at the protest, the students who attended the protest against Charles Murray paid an emotional tax to be there, in an effort to clear the gaslight and myths about race-determined cognitive capacities that he perpetuates. I highly doubt that Malcolm Gladwell’s appearance on campus, who too has been known to dole out contested research, would have inspired the same intellectual opposition, let alone as much fear.

At least James Baldwin, in his essay,“On Being White … and Other Lies,” can help us to understand this phenomenon – that is, the uneven challenges and disparate impact that students (often of minority identities) face in the “marketplace of ideas” debate. In the case of the black-white divide, Baldwin writes that there is a crisis of leadership in the white community because there is no white community. Instead, whiteness is safety, employed to deny black presence and justify “black subjugation.” The reality that no other principle (moral or otherwise) bases the white community lends to their reckless omniscience: They are “the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen.” With no target or leadership, whiteness, in turn, remains free from targeted, existential scrutiny, becoming a difficult framework to undermine.

A similar phenomenon seems at play in regards to the “marketplace of ideas” debate at Stanford. While some students’ communities are targeted by the speakers who are brought to campus, students whose communities are not targeted are seldom “pushed” to contest ideas that they find offensive or know are fallacious at all. Of course, by virtue of there being no white community, the stakes in bringing our nation’s most controversial speakers to campus may never be as high for white students as they often are for minority students. When it comes to these “free speech debates,” some students can opt in or out, say, of attending Murray’s lecture. Meanwhile, other students, in having their “cognitive capacities” distinctly questioned, take time out of their busy lives to protest these speakers out of necessity for their existential protection. For, if the protesters of Murray’s talk did not protest, then people might not know that an opposition existed otherwise. Protesting the racist beliefs that aim to shroud us is an imperative act that, time and time again, we shoulder on our own.

The symptoms, in turn, are these: While the Stanford administration “impartially” introduces their students to a “diversity of views,” students (in this case, black and Latino students, whose “inferior cognitive capacities” are remarked upon in Murray’s book) continually have their legitimacy outlayed for explicit challenge and public scrutiny. But in bringing speakers whose scholarship is already highly questioned, that is labeled as pseudo-science and that bears great “gaslighting” potential, our university as an academic community and institution must remember to whom the burden of opposing these stereotype-threat-inducing claims typically falls. While Murray and the Hoover Institute members chatted in a warm building and in comfort, again confident in their reckless “ideal,” the students standing outside of the History Corner assembled to affirm our own legitimacy to be here. As we braced the unrelenting wind, we recalled what “diversity” for the white community really means.

 

 

Contact Eliane Mitchell at elianen ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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