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The Long, Necessary History Of 'Whiny' Black Protesters At College

Students at the University of Missouri protested this fall amid concerns about the administration's handling of racial issues.
Jeff Roberson
Students at the University of Missouri protested this fall amid concerns about the administration's handling of racial issues.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a young black woman who recently graduated from Louisiana State. I asked her how she liked it there. She smiled, then sighed in exasperation. Without prompting, she brought up race. She had enrolled at LSU knowing Louisiana is one of the blackest states in the country, but once she got to campus, she realized black students made up a proportionately tiny fraction of the student body.

A football fan, she quickly figured out that going to tailgating parties on Saturdays meant stomaching the many Confederate flags on display, often in purple and gold, the university's colors. Oh, and there was a recent controversy that blew up on Twitter over a photo taken on campus of what appeared to be a noose — it turned out not to be, but such was the racial climate there that black students found it entirely plausible. She loved LSU, she told me, but by the time she graduated, she was exhausted by the feeling that it wasn't mutual.

Ask any person of color who went to a predominantly white university what college was like for them, and you're likely to get an appraisal of the racial dynamics at their alma maters. I've been hearing these recollections a lot lately, as black college students across the country from Yale to Ithaca to Mizzou have become increasingly vocal about issues of safety and belonging on their campuses.

This agitation is playing out at a time when higher education is more explicitly discussed in the language of the marketplace — "best values," "most lucrative majors" — in which students see their relationships to their universities in more transactional terms than previous generations did. They're not just students, but stakeholders. A student protester at Ithaca College recently made this explicit. "As customers, when we don't like the product, we complain," he told Fusion. "When a manager keeps ignoring what the customers are complaining about — there's a problem."

Critics in the media and academia have rolled their eyes at black students' claims of "trauma" and calls for "safe spaces." They point to a few instances of ill-conceived, ham-fisted protests by some of these student activists as evidence that their complaints are, at best, embarrassing and childish and, at worst, evidence of the advancing forces of political correctness. This is the Jonathan Chait school of thinking on today's campus politics, and we've come to expect both its dismissiveness and its failure of imagination as to the campus experiences of students who don't look like the average Ivy Leaguer.

But a fair number of post-collegiate black folks I've talked to have also expressed these sorts of sentiments toward the campus protesters, suggesting they're "whiny" and "entitled." To be sure, there's a different tenor to their bristling. They're less likely to suggest that today's black students are suffering from paranoid delusions of discrimination on campus because they lived through much of the same. The good ol' boy antagonism of Old South Week, the annual parade of blackface/brownface parties around Halloween, the testy run-ins with campus police who think you're trespassing. In fact, it's because so many older black folks survived a gantlet of racial jankiness in college that they've adopted a "kids these days" attitude toward today's protesters and their grievances.

"I just have too many calluses to see some of these things as injurious," a friend told me recently. She runs the black alumni organization for her alma mater, a well-known Midwestern college, and recalled a tense recent meeting on campus between current black students and black alums, some who had graduated pretty recently, others many years back. (She didn't want to out her school by name, to protect the current students and alumni who were at the meeting.)

At the meeting, the students offered complaints that sounded a lot like those of black undergrads protesting at other universities: a broad feeling of exclusion, along with more pointed instances of antagonism, including defacement of a public display that was put up in support of black students and having racial slurs yelled at them. My friend said she understood their frustrations — it sounded like stuff she went through on that campus two decades ago.

But when she chatted with some of the other black alumni after the meeting, they weren't as sympathetic. One of them, an older man who graduated from the college in the 1960s, was particularly unmoved. "He said they were coddled and indulged and they've grown unaccustomed to hardship," my friend recalled.

That line of thinking suggests that in his day, black students were somehow more able to shrug off racial antagonism and keep it moving. But were they? His cohort, the black Baby Boomers who went to college, attended schools that had in many cases integrated only recently, and not always willingly. This tension is on display in a guide created by black students at Washington University in St. Louis in 1969 as a way to help incoming peers navigate college life there.

The guide cautions that there were few black professors or administrators to be found and little social integration of black students into the broader campus life. "This is a predominantly white school, and therefore is oriented to white wants and needs," it reads. That student guide was created after a black student group on campus wrote a manifesto to the university's administration, calling for a permanent meeting place set aside for black students — what "coddled and indulged" kids today might call a "safe space" — as well as the creation of a black studies department, sensitivity training for the university's faculty and staff and the recruitment and promotion of more black professors.

A look at historian Ibram Kendi's account of black student activism of that period, The Black Campus Movement, makes it clear that agitation for more resources, more active inclusion, more safe spaces and more black faculty has been a through-line for black students on university campuses for generations. Indeed, a young man named Barack Obama engaged inexactly this sort of demonstration as a Harvard law student in the early 1990s. And for as long as black students have been asking for these accommodations, critics have been painting them as unreasonable, entitled and dangerous.

One difference between the oldheads and today's student protesters is an emphasis on curtailing "microaggressions" — those less obvious and more mundane instances of racial antagonism or ignorance. "I mean, you're asking me to solve racism," said my friend who runs the black alumni group. She knows how to push the administration to hire more diverse faculty. But how do you create a five-point plan around getting people to stop saying things like, "It's almost like you're not black" and reaching to touch people's natural hair?

It's easy for those of us with some distance from college to dismiss all this "microaggression" talk; we tend to forget how acutely we once felt those same slights, how often we commiserated over them, and what a disadvantage we were at not even having a name to put to these kinds of interactions. We may not be fully appreciating the necessary role that events like #ITooAmHarvard, a hashtag campaign in which non-white students shared the kinds of messages they'd really like white students to stop directing at them, play in reshaping social norms in ostensibly shared social spaces. (The fact that those efforts can seem poorly thought-out or heavy-handed is a function of them being executed by 19-year-olds.) We call them "entitled" while dismissing the work they're doing to solve their problems.

Parul Sehgal writes about the disdain for contemporary campus protesters in an essay at the New York Times Magazine about the suggestion that today's black college protesters simply need to show more "resilience" and "grit" in the face of racial discomfort. This prescription sidesteps "the very hard questions about inclusion and diversity that their protests are meant to raise," she writes. "By playing down the racism that the students have faced, it's easier to frame the protests as tantrums, products of brittle spirits, on a continuum with grade grubbing. Somehow, demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices."

They also ignore that the increased volume of this fall's protests comes on the heels of profound demographic shifts in American higher education over the past few decades. More Americans are going to college across the board, but enrollment among blacks and especially Latinos has jumped dramatically since the mid-1990s. And even as colleges and universities tout that their incoming freshman classes will be their most diverse ever, the high schools that produce each new freshman crop remain thoroughly and increasingly racially segregated. What we've seen in this year's campus turmoil is the inevitable collision of these trendlines. This is a point we keep coming back to at Code Switch: making space for black and brown people in the name of diversity can't work without preparing for the fact that their presence will necessitate new, sometimes awkward, sometimes disruptive adaptations and considerations.

"The protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party," Aaron Lewis, a Yale senior, wrote at Medium about the campus turmoil there. "They're about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day. The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn't."

It's also worth considering how counterintuitive the logic of "resilience" and the idea of "building up calluses" might seem to contemporary undergrads, whose high school and college careers have overlapped a wave of influential, geographically dispersed protest movements helmed largely by social-media-savvy young people, from Occupy to campus shutdowns over tuition hikes and Trayvon Martin to Black Lives Matter. The student-led protests this fall have resulted in some small, concrete changes and some big, possibly historic ones, including the resignation of top administrators at two schools so far. And in the age of social media, college administrators' traditional tactic of simply waiting out unruly students — there's always a semester break or graduation around the corner to dampen momentum — works less reliably. In the face of all this, are we really surprised that student protesters aren't hearing the oldheads who tell them to sit down and tough it out?

Or, as my friend who runs the black alumni group at her alma mater put it, "There's a very thin line between telling students that they have to learn to navigate a racist world and telling them that racism is a thing they should have to tolerate."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 17, 2015 at 9:00 PM PST
In a previous version of this story, Parul Sehgal's last name was misspelled as Seghal.
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.