I’ve been proven wrong. The evidence has overwhelmed me. I take it back.
“Stop saying ‘College isn’t for everyone,’” is one of my favorite retorts to the oft-aired argument, “Some people don’t belong in college.” It’s really a euphemism for, “Those people aren’t smart enough for college,” and is usually heard anywhere black and brown people live. But now I realize I have to rethink it, or at the very least use it in proper context. A wave of white nationalist activity on campus makes clear there are some people whom higher education shouldn’t make room for. For in making room for them, everyone suffers.
Between the election and the beginning of May, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that monitors hate groups, recorded more than 150 new reports of white nationalist fliers and recruitment materials on college campuses. But many colleges choose to downplay the spike in white supremacist activity on campus when they see it through the lens of academic freedom and free speech: It may be hateful, but it is acceptable. For many faculty members and administrators, xenophobes are just one kind of shopper in the marketplace of ideas.
But the temptation of the argument that even hate speech should be allowed in a place of learning in the name of unfettered thought is wrong-headed, because white nationalism is based on a brutal and artificial hierarchy. This separatism harms higher learning. Society progresses when ideas are vulnerable to different people, fresh ways of thinking and new knowledge. Inclusion fuels the machine of higher education — the main reason I cringe every time I hear, “College isn’t for everyone.”
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Bigoted white nationalist speech isn’t just harmful to learning; the ideology of white supremacy manifests corrupted actions, too. White nationalists have often resorted to violence against those who are different from them or those who prove them wrong using the tools of reason, ethics and science.
Just last week, University of Maryland-College Park student Sean Christopher Urbanski killed Richard W. Collins III, 23, a soon-to-be graduate of nearby Bowie State University. Urbanski, a white local boy from Severna Park, Md., stabbed Collins as he waited for an Uber car at a bus stop close to the College Park campus. Urbanski subscribes to the Facebook group “Alt-Reich,” which promotes hatred for people of color, “and especially African-Americans,” University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell said.
For Collins, a second lieutenant in the intelligence branch of the army, the world seemed wide open. “He loved lacrosse and soccer. He was a runner,” said his father, Richard Collins Jr., who described him as a competitor at heart. Collins III was in the Bowie Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and was certified to jump out of aircraft.
His murder by the hands of a white supremacist proves that there are some organizations and people who should not be welcomed to the hallowed halls of higher education. When white nationalist celebrity Richard Spencer said “Our time has come,” during a December 2016 visit to Texas A&M University, he put the lives of every person of color at that campus in jeopardy. Yet administrators allow separatist bullies like Spencer to run on the college yard, and make room for clubs that spew white nationalism and xenophobia.
As a Maryland alum, I am heartbroken, but not surprised that a fellow “Terp” killed a black man.
In 2015, University of Maryland-College Park student activists and alumni succeeded in pushing its Board of Regents into changing the name of the football stadium, which once bore the name of a former university president who opposed racial integration, to an untainted and artless Maryland Stadium.
During the official proceedings regarding the name change, the university president, Wallace D. Loh, said in support of the switch, “The values of the past are no longer the values of today.”
Many of us knew changing campus culture would be that much harder. Maryland’s path toward inclusion is already littered with antagonistic and demeaning acts against people of color, even after the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in 1954, including campus-endorsed events featuring the use of blackface until the late 1960s, and other hateful incidents that have gotten a pass as “free speech” up to now.
There are certainly people in Maryland who would love to make it “great” (read: white) again. Two years after the stadium name change, a noose was found in a fraternity row house, and white nationalist flyers began appearing on campus. One implored white students to “report any and all illegal aliens. They are criminals.” In case you forgot, they reminded you that “America is a white nation.”
Maryland was a slave state, a border state that sided with the Union but always had its own civil war. In the 1930s, the racist former university president Harry “Curley” Byrd chose the mascot of a terrapin to unify the then-all-white student body. (Today, a more appropriate rallying cry would be in support of the Collins family, not the terrapin.) Currently, the University of Maryland has one of the nation’s most diverse campuses, with students of color comprising 37 percent of the undergraduate and graduate populations combined in fall 2016. However, less than 9 percent of its tenured faculty members are black or Hispanic.
Shaken by Collins’ murder, the university issued a five-part action plan that includes a rapid-response team for any hate-bias incident, $100,000 in supplemental funds for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, development of an annual report on all hate-bias incidents, strengthening the existing intercollegiate athletics policy to explicitly prohibit any hate-bias symbols or actions in any athletic venue, and establishment of a task force on hate-bias and campus safety.
The Maryland’s Black Student Union welcomed the university’s response but also demanded that it “clearly define hate speech and not merely address it as a form of freedom of speech.”
Can we say that separatist paraphernalia and symbols have no place at universities as well as the organizations and people who proliferate them? For what kind of place turns the other cheek while hate-filled white supremacists rally others behind their cause and make targets of anyone who doesn’t comply? How many more deaths will it take for universities to learn that some ideologies should not be welcome?
My new favorite line is a little more blunt: Stop treating hate groups like a philosophy 101 course, before someone else gets killed.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.