This past week an unknown perpetrator vandalized the portraits of Harvard Law School’s black faculty members, mine included. Many students, colleagues, and friends responded to the defacement by expressing gratitude for the contributions that my colleagues and I make to the law school. I cherished these reactions for what they conveyed about my relationships with students, friends, and colleagues.
But the vandalism had not wounded me. Coming of age in the Deep South two decades after Brown v. Board of Education, I encountered and contested many varieties of racism: the occasional epithet, intermittent harassment, social isolation, the flattening-out of my personhood into a single attribute—skin color—and the economic disadvantages imposed by Jim Crow. As a result of these experiences, I developed a thick skin and other attributes vital to a happy and productive life. I learned to rise above slights, to befriend allies, and to nurture analytical and emotional intelligence. By creating opportunities early in life for me to deal with adversity, my detractors, quite unintentionally, facilitated my strong sense of self and professional success. I suppose I developed the attribute that social scientists now call “grit.”
Because of this background, I am disinclined to reward miserable acts such as the portrait defacement (which police are investigating) with further attention. In contrast to the vandalism itself, the social context in which the defacement occurred does deserve attention and analysis.
That context is the new generation of student-led protests underway on more than 100 college campuses. Students at Harvard recently staged marches in solidarity with these efforts, provoking positive as well as negative reactions. For me, a scholar of law and social change, this is a moment to reflect on how contemporary student activism relates to past efforts to create a more just and inclusive society.
Both the student demonstrations (and reactions to them) are quintessential exercises of First Amendment freedoms. Historically, dissidents, including those who engaged in the epic 1960s struggles for civil rights, embraced the rights of speech, assembly, and press. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the speech he delivered on the eve of his assassination, called First Amendment freedoms vital to our constitutional democracy and to the pursuit of human rights. (“Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech.* Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right,” he said, while contrasting the American system with totalitarian regimes in China and in the Soviet Union.) Similarly, Julian Bond, a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, called his constitutionally protected “courage to dissent” a key element of freedom.
Just a few days before the portrait vandalism, I discussed the mutually reinforcing relationship of First Amendment and 14th Amendment freedoms in my constitutional law course. I made the point in response to some students’ outrage that someone had drawn a swastika in a classroom located in the very same building where the portrait vandalism later took place. Fight speech—even hate speech—not with censorship, but with more speech, I said, even as I noted that speech rights are not absolute. Like activists of old, student protesters today must deploy argument and deliberation as tools of resistance and persuasion.
Those protesters who already have learned this lesson are using argument and deliberation to raise questions about community and belonging. They are asking whether universities that profess a commitment to access for students of color—or what I call “quantitative” diversity—will address demands for improving relational experiences in daily campus life—or what I call “qualitative” diversity.
Higher education long has been a site for contesting racial inequality. Deploying strikes, demonstrations, and sit-ins as tools of protest, black student activists of the 1960s demanded greater numbers of students and faculty of color on college campuses. During this generation of protest, students mostly focused on quantitative diversity.
Students of the current generation are drilling down on the qualitative aspects of diversity. Their critique of campus life poses a profound challenge to those who have never seriously contemplated how inclusion might or should change institutional practices inside the classroom and outside of it. Judging from the concerns expressed by groups on many different campuses, I gather that students hope to achieve four major components of qualitative diversity: representation, voice, community, and accountability.
Qualitative diversity cannot occur in the absence of adequate numerical representation of visibly racially diverse students. Students of color will never achieve high-quality experiences on campus if they do not constitute a non-trivial portion of the student body (a “critical mass,” to invoke the Supreme Court’s terminology).
The protesters also are seeking voice. They want to speak and to be heard, especially on issues that concern their communities. Universities should be ideal venues for such debates.
The word debate is critical. Anyone who raises her voice must expect disagreement with her ideas. Anticipating resistance, civil rights activists of the 1960s underwent training on appropriate responses to pushback. Contemporary protesters might likewise prioritize thoughtful responses to skeptics, whether they are well-meaning or hostile.
Community also is a critical dimension of qualitative diversity. Students historically excluded from higher education, whether women, people of color, or those from financially modest backgrounds, seek respect and inclusion on campus. The search for community is perhaps the most elusive element of qualitative diversity because it is a byproduct of values inculcated years before students arrive on college campuses.
Nevertheless, law, public policy, and institutional practices create conditions that make cross-racial community more or less likely. Justice Thurgood Marshall made this point years ago in a powerful dissent in Milliken v. Bradley, the landmark school desegregation case. In that case a majority of the Supreme Court rejected an inter-district remedy for racial segregation in Detroit. Marshall bemoaned the implications of the majority’s decision. He called it a “giant step backward” that reflected the majority’s deference to white resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. Marshall warned: “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.”
Numerous incidents on college campuses today suggest Marshall’s prescience. Meaningful cross-racial interaction in elementary and secondary education is a precondition to meaningful cross-racial relations in higher education and in society generally. Yet the court still has not heeded Marshall’s counsel. To the contrary, a plurality of the U.S. Supreme Court, in Parents Involved v. Seattle School District, rejected school districts’ voluntary, self-initiated efforts to promote integration. The consequences of these cases likely explain, at least in part, why some students arrive at university with little inclination or capacity to interact across racial lines. I wonder what percentage of students at the universities beset by protests attended meaningfully racially integrated secondary schools? How many enjoyed cross-racial friendships during secondary school? Do university admissions officials consider meaningful cross-racial contact an asset when assembling student bodies? If not, perhaps they should.
The protesters also seek accountability—from the administrators and faculty—for a more welcoming campus environment. This request strikes me as unremarkable. We ought to care about the quality of campus life experienced by all students, and changes within our reach can make a difference.
One change that students want is greater numbers of authority figures who acknowledge that race can matter, and often does matter, in ways relevant to the curriculum. Numerous subjects that students encounter in college and in law school intersect with this country’s tortured racial history and persistent racial cleavages. Students’ request to discuss subject matter in context is not, as a general matter, unreasonable. I cannot imagine a professor effectively teaching constitutional law without reference to relevant social and political forces or judicial biographies. In a discussion of Brown v. Board of Education, it might be useful, for example, to mention the Ku Klux Klan membership, however brief, of then-U.S. Senate candidate Hugo Black; once he joined the court, Black became a certain vote in favor of desegregation. One might mention that fact to encourage conversation about the contingency—and precariousness—of law as a tool for social change. The fact might also reinforce that judges’ backgrounds can and do influence court decisions, often in surprising ways.
The issues that the students have raised are not easy to confront, but these are important discussions. The conversations are hard, in part, because the students are talking about race at a far more demanding level than is usual for most people. After all, at the U.S. Supreme Court, mere inclusion of students of color remains the subject of controversy. By contrast, the students take for granted that racial diversity is a moral imperative.
The students are asking society to engage diversity at a deeper level: inquiring not merely about how campuses should look, but what diverse campuses should do in terms of classroom and community dynamics. We should welcome the conversation. Innumerable world events make plain that balkanization, whether racial, ethnic or religious, poses a threat to our values and even to our security.
Students should welcome participation in an enduring debate about inclusion. Their civic engagement permits them to lay claim to the legacy of a long and tortuous struggle for the “beloved community”—a vision of racial conciliation, justice for all, and equal opportunity.
*Correction, Dec. 1, 2015: This article originally misquoted Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. He said “Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech,” not “Someone.”