“Grow up.” That seems to be the main sentiment directed at student protesters at the University of Missouri and Yale this week from many quarters. On Facebook, cable news, and op-ed pages, people across the political spectrum have been cherry-picking intemperate student statements at Yale and rushing to denounce the Mizzou media-studies professor who should have known better than to try to exclude a photographer from a public venue.
I dissent. The students I know—at Yale, Columbia, and elsewhere—are not asking to be protected from the world. It’s the exact opposite. African-American students come to college already braced for every police encounter to go south. They know that one political party is trying to systematically roll back their generation’s voting rights. Even if their personal prospects seem bright, they see their own communities losing ground, a source of deep personal anguish. These students—my students—have already done plenty of growing up. If anything, they have had to grow up too soon. They are simply asking that university leaders and fellow students do some of that real-world growing up with them.
Stirred by the Black Lives Matter movement, this year’s campus protests engage students on some pretty primordial terrain: the day-in-day-out interactions with classmates, teachers, administrators, and police that tell students whether they matter or not, individually and collectively. To off-campus observers, these protests can be confusing. The sparks and targets can seem diffuse, from emotional arguments over offensive Halloween costumes at Yale to allegations of racial slurs at Mizzou. But the stakes are real and have everything to do with some of the most fundamental issues roiling American politics.
Let’s take Yale, which I know better than Mizzou; I live in New Haven and have taught a journalism seminar in Yale College for over 20 years. The Yale protests have been widely misconstrued as a free-speech fight, putting a professor standing up for Halloween fun against humorless safe-spacers. Here’s the reality. Twenty-fifteen has been a highly charged year for African-American and other minority students at Yale. January began with the gunpoint detention of Tahj Blow, son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, putting on a global stage the irrefutable fact that matriculation at an elite university is no protection against potentially lethal encounters between police and African-Americans. Throughout this same year, Yale students, faculty, and alumni have been locked in painstaking consideration of whether to rebrand the residential college, named since 1933 for the preeminent champion of slavery John C. Calhoun. (Test: Can you imagine any American university maintaining a dorm called Himmler Hall?) The professors who lead all of Yale’s residential colleges—its dorm system—have been publicly debating whether to abandon the provocative title of “master,” with its unhappy echoes. And perhaps most significantly, students have looked on powerlessly as Yale has lost one preeminent minority faculty member after another to other schools—most recently poet and literature scholar Elizabeth Alexander to Columbia and acclaimed anthropologist and LGBT researcher Karen Nakamura to Berkeley.