Not two weeks after President Clinton's heartfelt speech here on systemic racism in America, students are asking themselves to what extent the evil exists at Columbia University.
Of the three events linked by the groups behind yesterday's protest on Low Steps--Orgo Night's Michael Jackson jokes, the conservative club's anti-affirmative action bake sale, and the publication of The Fed's "Blacky Fun Whitey" cartoon--we detest each one, and wish the groups would walk a mile in minorities' shoes to understand how insensitive any minimization of their history can be.
Yesterday's protest was strikingly eloquent; it was a perfect example of offended students fighting speech with more speech--in the form of a silent protest, clad all in black. It was surely what Mill had in mind when he wrote that even low-quality speech is in fact valuable because of the light thrown off by its collision with the truth. Arrogant bake sale, flippant Orgo Night, monstrously callous Fed cartoon: consider yourselves demolished by your collision with the truth of student opinion on campus.
In particular, the undergraduate student body is virtually unanimous in its revulsion toward "Blacky Fun Whitey." We have little respect for The Fed as a publication and even less for its current editors, whose hands-off, anything-goes approach is the opposite of what good editing really is. But those editors have apologized for "Blacky Fun Whitey" with what appears to be legitimate contrition; they are unlikely to publish anything similar again. In the competition of the marketplace of ideas, the protesters won and The Fed lost.
The groups behind this week's protest should consider how best to use these concrete instances of insensitivity to relieve some of the more abstract forms of racism on campus. Yes, Columbia's students of color do face racism--not overt acts, like students dressing in blackface at Halloween (University of Virginia, 2003) or mock lynchings (Auburn University, 2001), but rather a more insidious racism that is common to all America, including sophisticated metropolises like New York. Even at 116th and Broadway, some white students cross the street to avoid minorities late at night. White students should never underestimate the psychological pain that such acts can cause, nor what that pain, uncorrected, can metastasize into: lowered self-expectations or actual racial schisms in the student body.
But in their efforts to achieve a more racially whole university, this week's protesters should consider that Columbia is probably among the least racist campuses in America. Black Enterprise Magazine ranked Columbia the eighth-best university for African-American students last year. To be sure, there are those that would limit or slow the advancement of African-Americans in the world of higher education--namely, opponents of affirmative action, and we can include the organizers of the CCCC bake sale here. But we should keep in mind that Columbia's presidency is filled by the nation's No. 1 affirmative action advocate. In the last 50 years, Columbia has been known as the Ivy for minorities, especially Jews and blacks. Bollinger's presidency is the logical extension of that, and we can only expect to see accelerated advancement for minorities now that he is here.
We're glad students' racism sensors are on a hair trigger--this country's racial past is abominable, and we want to explode slavery's legacy with all speed. But in students' zeal for a more perfect university, they should remember that Columbia is more perfect than most.