When Moral pressure alone was not sufficient
by Charles M. Blow
Before there were the Paris terror attacks that changed everything and the second Democratic presidential debate that changed nothing, much of America had been transfixed by the scene playing out on college campuses across the country: black students and their allies demanding an insulation from racial hostility, full inclusion and administrative responsiveness.
There was a part of the debate around those protests that I have not been able to release other than by writing here, one step off the news, but hopefully in step with the history of this moment.
Last week I heard artist Ebony G. Patterson talking about the black body as a “site of contention,” and that phrase stuck with me, because it seemed to be revelatory in its simplicity, and above all, true.
Black bodies are a battlefield: black folks fight to defend them as external forces fight to destroy them; black folks dare to see the beauty in them as external forces condemn and curse them.
Or worse, most insidiously, black folk try to calibrate their bodies to avoid injury.
All my life I have noticed black people, particularly elderly ones, subconsciously turtle down their necks between their shoulders or bubble up their personas beyond their comfort to countervail a perception, to set white folks at ease, to allay some ill-conceived fear.
The ultimate offense of it all — the contorting of body and behavior to offset the deficit in another. There is a spiritual injustice in the adjustment.
But now young black folks are refusing alteration or the mollification of conformity and are simply demanding justice.
There is now an implacable yearning for society to acknowledge anti-black racism and the oppressive forces it has generated and maintained — historical ones and present ones — and to work towards a culture in which those forces are blunted, or better, dismantled.
The time of placidity is at an end. This is a new moment, a loud, disruptive one.
Even black athletes, at least at the University of Missouri, are forcing power structures to bend to monetary pressure when moral pressure alone was not sufficient. The only question remaining is whether these emerging young activists have the endurance to stick with it until the work is done.
Urgency takes on another property, elasticity, when it is draped over time that is in no hurry, time that encompasses both the moment and the ages. Battles for social justice are more often counted in decades than days, and there are many little-noticed skirmishes before the grand battle. But a morally inviolable objective, like equality, is as deep as time is long.
There will be missteps, tactical errors, assailable symbols and an army of detractors and fickle allies ready to seize upon each and exploit them.
For instance, it was not wise or right for student protesters and a faculty supporter at Missouri to try and establish a private space, a media-free safe space, on a public one.
Indeed, public justice advocates have often used media exposure to great advantage in their struggles.
However, one must condemn the forces of anti-black oppression just as vociferously as one condemns black people’s responses to those forces, including when those responses extend beyond the boundaries of social acceptability and decorous propriety. Otherwise, one’s qualms are an overture to pacification and the propping up of the status quo.
You can’t condemn the unseemly howl and not the lash.
Furthermore, I fully understand the desire for safe spaces, for racial sanctuary, particularly in times of racial trauma. I have always had these safe spaces, not by black design, but as a byproduct of white racism.
I grew up in the rural South when racial segregation was no longer the law, but remained the norm. I have gone to predominately black schools most of my life, schools that began so or became so because of white people’s deep desire to resist racial commingling. But what was born of hate, black folks infused with pride and anointed with value.
There existed for me a virtual archipelago of racial sanctuaries, places — communities, churches, schools — where I could be insulated from the racial scarring that intimate proximity to racial hostility can produce.
That is, I assume, what these students want as well.
In Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s foreword to Harvard professor emeritus Martin Kilson’s American Book Award-winning 2014 book, Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1880-2012, Gates quotes an interview that Kilson gave The Crimson in 1964. Kilson said: “I suppose we’re looking for a new Negro identity, a psychological process, which has its roots in a broader Negro community.” Kilson continued, “It’s true that Negroes, like anyone else, prize individuality. But the thing the compulsive liberal can’t understand is that we also like to swing together. You know, like we did in my good father’s church back home.”
At no time is swinging together more important than when the death threats start to come and media vultures start to circle.
(This column originally appeared in the New York Times NOV. 16, 2015 under the title “Race, College and Safe Space”)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”