Questioning the rationale of college students holding anti-racism protests across the U.S.
College students have always been recognized as the nation’s most forward-thinking demographic. During the civil rights era they were the first to initiate sit-ins as a form of protest. Likewise, the movement against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was born on college campuses. So in the 21st century it comes as no surprise that protests against discrimination would be spearheaded by this demographic. What has come as more of a surprise has been the extent to which these latest protests have propagated amongst campuses across the nation.
Demonstrations at the University of Missouri were at the forefront of this recent movement. When protests, a hunger strike, a threatened boycott by the football team and ultimately, the resignations of two administrators took place, Mizzou gained national attention. The media also brought focus to uprisings at Yale University in response to a professor defending students’ freedom to wear potentially offensive Halloween costumes.
These well-publicized confrontations drove students throughout the country to get involved. #InSoliarityWithMizzou and photos of rallies took over social media. It was not long before other students were ready to bring protests to campuses of their own.
Hundreds of students at Ithaca College demonstrated to demand the resignation of their president, for what they said was his insufficient response to complaints of racism on campus. At Claremont McKenna College in California, after repeated protests over the treatment of students of color, the dean of students resigned.
The demand for high college officials to resign is a movement that continues to gain momentum. However, it seems that students are demanding more than just the removal of current campus leaders. In many cases, students are pushing to have historical campus leaders stripped of their recognition as well.
At Princeton University protestors demanded that the name of “racist” Woodrow Wilson (28th president of the United States and honorable alumnus) be removed from all buildings. While protestors condemned their current treatment on campus, they especially brought attention to the fact that Wilson discouraged the admission of black students to Princeton and opposed black suffrage. The students emphasized that the image that Princeton has constructed around Wilson is entirely celebratory and fails to acknowledge the harsh truth. The protestors called for a critical rethinking of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy at Princeton, a diversity distribution requirement for students and compulsory competency training for faculty and staff, and common housing and space for black students.
Woodrow Wilson wasn’t the only president that was recently ridiculed on a college campus. At both the University of Missouri at Columbia and William and Mary College, students have taken to sticky notes as the newest means of attack. On both campuses statues of Thomas Jefferson have been covered in Post-it notes labeling him a “racist” and a “slave holder” among other things.
It is understandable that students who feel they are being discriminated against do not want a constant reminder of previous attackers. However, historical figures are not awarded a place on campus for their racist sentiments. It is okay to remember why these figures are deserving of such commemoration and have an understanding of the flaws these individuals possessed as well. In the case of Jefferson, it is fair to acknowledge that he had significant and revolutionary contributions to American democracy while also acknowledging that racism is bad and that the endorsement of slavery by the Founding Fathers is a shortcoming of their legacy.
If protestors are calling for a campus to be more aware of a figure’s shameful past, and this can be achieved with a newsletter or a plaque alongside the monument, then by all means protestors should be granted that. But removal of names and statues of previous leaders is borderline extreme. If the standard for commemorating people is that they have to be perfect, we should stop commemorating people. With no intent to trivialize the issue–erasing the past or removing a historical figure from campus does not seem to be the most productive method of bringing about effective change.
After the initial racial protests early this fall many have been questioning if later campus protests have been about sincere issues or are simply results of students “jumping on the bandwagon.” Without a doubt, students are jumping on this bandwagon. However, this phrase does not necessarily have to be associated with such a negative connotation. Movements begin because they spread—because someone sees an idea somewhere else and agrees with it. Admittedly, some students may be bringing racial issues to an extreme. Clearly the early founders of this nation made some mistakes. But it is unjust on our part to say that these student protests are taking it a step too far. Because until one can walk a step (or maybe quite a few steps) in their shoes, it is irrational to tell protestors that what they are fighting for is just not worth it.