The Wrong Response to Hatred

As racial tension flares on campus, an important question needs to be asked: how should we, as a University, respond to acts of hatred? After racial slurs appeared on dorm name tags in the West Quad residence hall, roughly 150 protesters gathered at the Michigan Union to meet with President Mark Schlissel and Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers on September 20th to voice frustration over the University’s inability to hold someone accountable for the recent vandalism.

The day after the protest, President Schlissel issued a formal statement on the incident, commenting that “the university will pursue these matters to the fullest extent provided for by the laws of the state of Michigan and university policy” while appealing to a shared sense of unity. “We genuinely hope that further discussions and collaboration will lead to meaningful measures that will help us all combat these incidents. Each of us needs to do everything in our power to be the kind of community where such behavior is universally condemned.”

Although frustration with his statement is understandable—as one wonders how the school is unable to identify the perpetrator with all the security cameras in our residence hallsfar more troubling responses to this issue have come from student activists. Students4Justice, a campus organization who helped organize a protest at President Schlissel’s house following the event at the Union, criticized the University on Facebook, claiming the administration “continues to remain silent on these issues [of racism], support free speech on campus, and promote tolerance, instead of directly denouncing white supremacy.”

Should the University take active measures to chill free speech on campus in response to racist graffiti? It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of self-awareness to realize that exercising one’s right to free speech is the only way to draw attention to acts of racism on campus and to repudiate those that commit them.

Students4Justice is viewed as a leader in student activism on campus, so a statement like this should not be glossed over. The organization recklessly draws a false-equivalency between the illegal act of vandalism and the right to exercise free speech, while simultaneously criticizing the University for promoting “tolerance.”

Should the University take active measures to chill free speech on campus in response to racist graffiti? It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of self-awareness to realize that exercising one’s right to free speech is the only way to draw attention to acts of racism on campus and to repudiate those that commit them.

And should the University take a stance against tolerance on campus? This insinuation baffles me the most, as the issue at hand is a rejection of pluralism by those who commit acts of racist vandalism. A lack of tolerance is the core issue.

It may seem like I am being over-critical with the comments of a single student organization, but sentiments like those expressed by Students4Justice have dangerous real-world consequences. When we dispose of the value of open discourse and tolerance and view civil engagement as a worthless effort, our only recourse in the event of disagreement is violence. If I refuse to tolerate your perspective and believe my words won’t reach you, then perhaps my fists will instead.

It should be no surprise then that when a loser approaches a group of protesters using racial slurs, a physical fight breaks out right in front of the Michigan Union. Or after the fight is over, a protester is recorded relishing that the man is “going to wake up tomorrow with a sore face.”

The student body should always criticize the University administration for where it falls short, but we shouldn’t be condemning it for affirming that free speech and open discussion are necessary to fight racism on campus.  Likewise, we should hold student leaders responsible for the words they use, as they have the tremendous opportunity to influence the minds of those engaged in the campus discourse. If you decide to influence students by advocating for the conditions necessary to excuse violence, then do not be surprised when violence is what you get.

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About Cole Carnick

Cole is a junior at the University of Michigan. He can be contacted at carnick@umich.edu, or on Twitter @ColeCarnick.