Bryn Mawr College, a good liberal arts college where I adjunct taught a few years back, recently got the kind of press no college wants: two southern students displayed a Confederate flag, leading to days of demonstrations.
One protester had written on her arm “I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO QUESTION IF I BELONG HERE. I WILL NOT BE SILENCED.”
First, it might not be fair to attack this as yet another example of campus political correctness run amok. College administrators, quite reasonably, sought to have the students work out their disagreements. If there was something like McCarthyism at Bryn Mawr, the college president did not lead it.
Second, one should admit that as Stanley Fish argued some years back, we are all censors. Arguably, some symbols have no place on campus: most obviously the Swastika and the Marxist Hammer and Sickle, whose regimes produced at least 80 million corpses and ruined whole economies, societies, and ecosystems. (Read Harvard University Press’s Black Book of Communism if you require documentation.)
The Confederate Flag is more complicated. Certainly the Civil War was mainly about slavery, however much most white southerners wish it were not so. Yet one must recall that slavery was long a part of the human condition, lasting deep into the 20th century in certain Muslim lands. (Boko Haram still has not gotten the memo.) All the same, it would seem petty to prohibit students from Riyadh from flying a Saudi flag. Saudi Arabia should not be defined by the fact that it did not abolish slavery until 1962; nor should Saudi Arabia be defined by those of us who are not Saudi.
Isolated in an ivory tower, I suspect that few Bryn Martyrs know any real live white Southerners. They can hardly fathom Southern disdain for two centuries of Yankee political, economic, and social condescension. For some in my own multiracial and multiregional extended family, not all of them black, the Confederate Flag stands for centuries of racism; for others, I suspect not all of them white, the flag stands for pride of place, and courage in the face of daunting odds.
Like many symbols, this one has different meanings for different people, good people (and bad people too). Such is the nature of identity politics. We need to teach students that.
Third, when 500 students, administrators, faculty, alumnae, and trustees protest the actions of two undergraduates, one must ask who is being silenced and who has the power. One must also ask who shows the courage to dissent, and who is playing it safe.
Fourth, free speech is less a set of rules than a disposition, a desire to accommodate and tolerate rather than crush dissenters. To have it, one must see opponents as persons to be respected, not objects of condescension. Certain Bryn Martyrs are not the only ones lacking this mindset.
Finally, all this does not mean that the protesting students were not right in some form or fashion. Usually when a racial spark catches fire, it reflects not moments of anger but years of pent up grievances. Some are imagined, but others are real.
I grew up in a mainly white suburb of Baltimore in the 1970s. I always knew that had I been born black one mile away in Baltimore City, I might have mouthed off to the wrong person and been shot, like more than 200 black Baltimoreans every year. As black on black violence, the police would not have taken my death seriously. Baltimore’s homicide rate is roughly ten times that of New York, but Baltimore police do not lose their jobs over this. Baltimore’s overwhelmingly black school kids do not on the whole learn to read at grade level, but Baltimore educators do not lose their jobs over that.
In society, and on campus, racial rage can be just privileged young people posing. But it also flares up when people feel treated as types or tokens rather than full-fledged humans. The flag was a spark, but the tinder may reflect things far deeper, and far beyond Bryn Mawr.