By John McWhorter
Debra Dickerson said of the Cornell students who took over Willard Straight Hall at Cornell in 1969, “What they actually wanted was beyond the white man’s power to bestow.” Even after they were granted a Black Studies department as they demanded, a core of black students remained infuriated at Cornell as still “fundamentally” racist.
As we mark the fortieth anniversary of that day, I am reminded of one twenty springs later in May, 1989, when 60 Stanford students took over the university president’s building and were arrested. Because 1989 was such a different America racially from that of 1969, such that Stanford had a healthy body of black students of middle-class provenance and above, what went down in the annals as “Takeover 89” was fundamentally a happy event. It was symbolic of a general detour in race ideology in America, and the memory has never left me.
The idea was that in not acceding to certain demands regarding minority issues, the administration had revealed itself to be racist. Interesting, though, what the “demands” were. This time there was already a Black Studies program, plus a student association, and a theme house. So instead, the main demands were four: a Native American Studies department, an Asian-American Studies department (despite there being an Asian-themed dormitory and university-funded Asian students’ association), an assistant dean for Chicano affairs (despite a Chicano student center), and a vague demand for “more” black professors. After all, if black professors are not 13% of the faculty when black people are 13% of the American population, then you know what that’s all about.