“Did you look at the demands? The demands, the things that they’re asking for, many of those things are like, crazy.”—Donald Trump on the University of Missouri Protests
“For as long as black students have been asking for these accommodations, critics have been painting them as unreasonable, entitled and dangerous.”—Gene Demby
To students of color who have spent much of this year protesting at campuses across the country: Thank you for your unreasonable demands.
Equality for people of color in the U.S. is always unreasonable. It was unreasonable for abolitionists to believe slavery would end. It was unreasonable to think Jim Crow would fall. And it is unreasonable to think you can transform the institution of higher education. When administrators claim your demands are impossible they are really saying “we can’t stop oppressing you.”
You say, “treat us as equals” and they respond “unreasonable.” You say, “don’t honor my ancestor’s enslaver” and they respond “unreasonable.” You say, “take a racist’s name off that building” and they respond “unreasonable.”
The protesters at Mizzou, Yale, Princeton, Duke and campuses across the country have already had some of their unreasonable demands met. More importantly, what many people are missing in this debate (or perhaps strategically ignoring) is that you are attending a historically white College or University precisely because of the unreasonable demands of prior generations of people of color. It is strange to me what we consider reasonable. Many white adults, whom you are taught to respect, consider it “reasonable” for police officers to murder Tamir Rice. It is considered reasonable to make millions off of the bodies of black athletes and refuse to pay them. It is considered reasonable for you to to walk around a campus with symbols valorizing those who raped, killed, and enslaved your ancestors. Yet, when black students and athletes say stop the daily affronts to our dignity many consider it unreasonable.
Light winds destroy card houses. tweet
You are right to reject this definition of reason. The (mostly) white people who are supporting these policies have no monopoly on reason, though they would have you believe reason is their invention. The only thing separating their reason from yours is power. And your protests, showing that this definition of reason is illegitimate, is understandably making them nervous. Light winds destroy card houses.
Every semester I have my students read Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail. This letter shows a very different Dr. King than the saccharine version trotted out by the powers that be whenever they want to scold black people. From his prison cell, Dr. King was responding to a group of ministers who claimed that the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement were inappropriate because they precipitated violence: white people responded violently, even murderously, to black people calmly singing, marching, and asking for equality. Tired of the apathy and condemnation of those who considered his tactics unreasonable, Dr. King wrote, “”I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.” Moderates were willing to countenance injustice so they could simply go about their lives without being bothered. Detractors from the protests you have catalyzed across the country are strikingly similar to the white moderates Dr. King was addressing. Your opponents downplay your concerns and condemning your tactics—while doing nothing about the conditions that leave you little recourse beyond protest.
Diversity without equality has never been enough. tweet
Many commentators have said that in protesting, you are erasing or attempting to rewrite history. This is simply wrong. In reality student protestors are writing claiming their own history by revealing the contradictions of many integrated spaces. Diversity without equality has never been enough. Indeed, far from erasing history, black students are forcing white students and administrators to confront their own history. Many whites do not generally like what this confrontation reveals. Undermining the narrative of racial progress (a narrative that conveniently centers white goodness) is, for some, uncomfortable. Many whites don’t like to be reminded that they, their parents, and their grandparents generally fought every chance for your advancement (just as they are fighting now). Nor do whites like to be reminded that their revered heroes are often those who most effectively persecuted people of color. In reality, black student protestors know white history better than many whites. These universities, and the country, should be thankful for what you are teaching them.
Others are claiming you are exulting the status of victimhood. This is disingenuous. Nobody fears victims—and you have put fear into administrators across the country. Your protests have already shaken these institutions to the core by rejecting the notion that you have been done a favor. The reason condemnation has come so swiftly from so many is because you have touched upon something fundamental—institutions of higher education often get more from students of color than they give in return.
There is a presumption among some whites that black claims are always unjustifiable. Denials of legitimacy of black resistance have a remarkable historical pedigree, from the diagnosis of drapetomania claiming runaway slaves were mentally ill, to the white moderates counseling patience with oppression, to the academics who saw 1960s protest as psychosis. These denials, whether grounded in pseudoscience, racism, or both, share the common theme of white absolution and black blame. Given the history of white denial of racial inequality, the mainstream rejection of your claims is to be expected. Accepting the legitimacy of your claims would force those benefitting from your exclusion—actively or passively—to admit that what they have has been earned illegitimately. What is illegitimate—what is truly unreasonable—is a system that is continually developing new and cunning ways to deny the value of black life.
image via Annette Bernhardt