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.
I watched the arrests, as police buses and clumps of officers clashed with the usual early evening calm of the Quad. But overall, some things just didn’t quite jell. I had been a little perplexed reading and hearing about the demands. There are times when persistent injustice requires making noise. A certain episode called the Civil Rights movement comes to mind.
But because there is no department of Native American Studies devoted to an infinitesimal component of the student population, we take over a building and get arrested? With a dormitory, a student association, and various Asian-themed courses, reasonable people could conclude that the administration was not opposed to Asian students exploring their identity. Was the single fact that there was no Asian Studies department on top of all of this grounds for taking over a building and getting arrested?
And, then, never mind that for blacks and Latinos there was Affirmative Action, vigorously celebrated by the administration. I could see having some wishes as to what an ideal Stanford would be. But to take these particular, niggling issues to the streets seemed out of proportion. One approached the list of demands anticipating backwards lapses of racial awareness, only to find rather bland matters of administrative detail, dwarfed by a general and obvious commitment to nurturing students’ quest for ethnic identity, typical of universities by the late 1980s. It seemed as if the protesters were looking for things to object to, rather than spontaneously resisting oppression of the sort that most of the world’s population would recognize as worthy of attention.
The other thing that didn’t add up about “Takeover 89” was a matter of demeanor. What struck me powerfully was a simple but highly indicative thing about the students: their sheer joy — faces beaming through the bus windows, many students even brandishing exuberant “nyah-nyah” gestures and postures as they were loaded onto the buses.
There is a crucial contrast here: grins are sparse in footage of the Birmingham protests or the Selma march. Occasionally someone flashes a smile at the novelty of the camera, but there is no schoolyard “nyah-nyah” smugness. The protesters at Haymarket were not happy. There was nothing fun about the Veterans’ March on the White House in 1932. What were the students in the Stanford protest so happy about?
Remember, the administration had yet to make any concessions. All the students knew was that the police had come to arrest them and that they were on the evening news. It wouldn’t be until seven years later, in fact – when all of these students were long departed from the campus – that Stanford would finally introduce interdisciplinary majors (and not departments) in Native American and Asian (and Chicano) studies.
In other words, “Takeover 89” was, at heart, a show. It was a theatrical gesture, modelled on sincere Civil Rights activism in the past, but only on the basis of its superficial attractions when viewed on film: the noise, giving the finger to the authorities, showing oneself to vibrate to a higher moral awareness — rather than being initially aroused by the awareness itself. Whether the “protest” actually led to the hiring of an assistant dean of Chicano affairs was beside the point.
We know this because if the protesters were genuinely aggrieved that such a dean had not been appointed, or that a Native American Studies department did not exist, they would have been glum, angry, or somewhere in between as they were herded into those buses — unsure whether their efforts had borne fruit, and indignant that their calls for change had been greeted with the dismissal of being arrested rather than heeded. The smiles through the bus windows, before the administration had suggested any signs of concession, were nonsensical — except as evidence that the protesters were entranced with protest for its own sake rather than committed sincerely to change.
It was also hard to miss a certain tiptoeing quality to the initial disruption. The sit-in protesters in the early sixties put their physical well-being on the line. Even the Cornell protesters stormed Willard Straight when it was full of not only workers, but parents sleeping there during Parents’ Weekend, and forcibly evicted all of them. The Stanford protesters, in contrast, took over president Donald Kennedy’s office before 8 AM when no one had come to work yet.
That is, they weren’t sincerely aggrieved enough to venture confronting actual people at their desks, as for example, the sixty militants in Tehran had ten years earlier when they took over the American embassy and blindfolded sixty people. Deep down the Stanford protesters couldn’t stomach bursting in on Kennedy and physically ousting him from his chair because there was no Native American Studies department. Rather, they had just enough pepper to pose themselves in the building at dawn to be encountered later. They were setting a scene, as it were, for a daylong imitation of a protest: a show.
To stick your tongue out of a bus window is showing it to the suits; the message is “gotcha – I can disrupt your workday and tar you as a racist in the media.” People who participated in sit-ins and got hauled off to prison were not having a good time. They did not stick their tongues out – a juvenile gesture associated with trivial interactions between children, driven by small, personal explorations of sandbox pecking order. They were not people living lives most of the world would envy deciding to show white people something in their spare time, while leaving even people enlightened and concerned about racial justice perplexed — including quite a few bemused minority students focused on doing their schoolwork and unclear as to just what an Assistant Dean of Chicano Affairs would have to do with their success or spiritual well-being at Stanford.
“Takeover 89,” then, was a mere faded copy of the Civil Rights protests. The sincere aggrievement that motivated these had transmogrified into a smirking impulse to “act up” for its own sake. The minority student protest impulse lives on not because college campuses, the most exquisitely racially sensitized settings in America, remain racist enclaves in any sense that black students who attended them before the late sixties would recognize. The impulse provides a balm for the insecurities of the young, in giving them something to feel morally superior to – as well as assuaging survivor’s guilt among privileged black college students who want to shield themselves from any charge of being unconcerned with the people of their race less fortunate than them.
Nothing illustrated the essence of “Takeover 89” than a black undergrad who was one of the protesters, who was a columnist that year for the Stanford Daily and delivered her editorial for that week by handing it written out in longhand through an office window to a friend. I get it -“Letter From a Palo Alto Jail.” I met her a few weeks later at a party, and noticed that her main emotion about “Takeover 89” was, again, joy. She had precisely the demeanor in talking about that day that a performer has in their dressing room after the first night of a musical.
Unknown to the “Takeover 89” protesters was protesting not as something they “pulled” one fine spring day, but as a desperate and physically perilous grab at basic human dignity. They were like people doing re-enactments of Civil War battles. They had gotten up early one morning, posed themselves on the set and gone through the motions of past battles because it was – let’s face it – fun.
The difference between Cornell 1969 and Stanford 1989 was that in the end, what the Stanford kids wanted was in the white man’s power to bestow. There was no open-endedly “militant” mood on campus after that day. Life as privileged black children could never have left these Stanford kids as sincerely alienated as growing up under Jim Crow had the Cornell protesters. The media attention and being a hot topic all over campus for a couple of weeks was recompense enough for their trouble.
But what this meant was that the agitation itself had been the self-standing point. It was like well-heeled black folks saluting angry hiphop – or even sermons like Jeremiah Wright’s — as “authentic” in striking poses they would never venture themselves except in the safety of mimicry and encouragement from the gallery. One of the grandest ironies of the victories of the Civil Rights movement is that it inevitably left imitators in its wake, entranced by the atmosphere and mouthing the slogans without the self-sacrificingly constructive intent.
I wasn’t terribly “political” back then, but the disjunction in “Takeover 89” between the purported and the actual was the kind of thing that sticks with you. It was the kind of thing that eventually gets you thinking about writing an editorial. Or a book.