The presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been roundly condemned for arguing at a congressional hearing on antisemitism that calls for genocide against Jews are not always susceptible to sanction on their campuses. (Liz Magill of Penn has since resigned.)
Less noticed has been how starkly their expectations of Jewish students point up how low expectations are for Black students on many college campuses — expectations low enough to qualify as a kind of racism.
Yes, racism, though it’s more of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush referred to.
Many leaders at elite universities seem to think that as stewards of modern antiracism, their job is to decry and to penalize, to the maximum extent possible, anything said or done that makes Black students uncomfortable.
In the congressional hearing, the presidents made clear that Jewish students should be protected when hate speech is “directed and severe, pervasive” (in the words of Ms. Magill) or when the speech “becomes conduct” (Claudine Gay of Harvard).
But the tacit idea is that when it comes to issues related to race — and, specifically, Black students — then free speech considerations become an abstraction. Where Black students are concerned, we are to forget whether the offense is directed, as even the indirect is treated as evil; we are to forget the difference between speech and conduct, as mere utterance is grounds for aggrieved condemnation.
It seems to me that, in debates over free speech, Jews are seen in some quarters as white and therefore need no protection from outright hostility. But racism is America’s original sin, and thus we are to treat all and any intimation of it on university campuses as a kind of kryptonite, even if that means treating Black students as pathological cases rather than human beings with basic resilience who understand proportion and degree.
This is certainly a double standard imposed on Jewish students, as my colleagues Bret Stephens and David French, among others, have argued. However, we must also consider the imposition of this double standard upon young Black people. To assume they can’t handle anything unpleasant infantilizes bright, serious students preparing for life in the real world.
Both expectations are offenses to human dignity, and universities must seek a middle ground. The answer is neither the crudeness of allowing all speech to pass as “free” nor the clamping down on any utterance that rubs a student the wrong way.
The contrast between how university leaders treat affronts to Blackness versus how they are currently treating affronts to Jewishness is almost chilling.
Last year, the legal scholar Ilya Shapiro, before he was to start an appointment at Georgetown’s law school, wrote a tweet implying that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was an affirmative action pick for the Supreme Court. “Because Biden said he’d only consider black women for SCOTUS, his nominee will always have an asterisk attached.” Shapiro also said that the Indian American judge he thought best qualified “doesn’t fit into latest intersectionality hierarchy so we’ll get a lesser black woman.”
For two tweets, his appointment was suspended pending an investigation. Two tweets, that is, and expressing his assessment of racial preferences in the selection of a Supreme Court justice. Shapiro simply — and rather gracelessly — expressed an opinion. His appointment was reinstated — but only because the tweets were written before he was on the job, with it specified that had he written such tweets while employed, it would likely have been classified as creating a hostile environment. (Shapiro ultimately resigned before assuming the position.)
The geophysicist Dorian Abbot was disinvited from giving a talk on climate at M.I.T. when it was discovered that he had spoken against identity-based preferences in the past. The head of the department that had invited Abbot announced that “words matter and have consequences.” But the question is whether the words in this case were so injurious as to constitute abusive action — hardly an open-and-shut case — and more to the point, those were words Abbot was presumably not going to speak in his presentation. This was a medieval-style banning of a heretic.
Sometimes Black students must be protected not only from words, but words that sound like other words. In 2020, Greg Patton was suspended from teaching a class in communications at the University of Southern California. The reason was that one of his lectures included noting that in Mandarin, a hesitation term is “nèi ge,” which means “that …” and has nothing to do, of course, with the N-word. Several Black students said they felt injured by experiencing this word in the class.
The offense can even be 100 years in the past. In 2021 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, some Black students were upset when walking past a boulder on campus that was referred to as a “niggerhead” by a newspaper reporter in 1925, when that term was common for large, dark rocks. The school had the boulder removed.
In cases like those last two, it seems that Black students are being taught a performed kind of delicacy. If you can’t bear walking past a rock someone called a dirty name 100 years ago, how are you going to deal with life?
It surely feels like being on the right side of social justice these days means shielding Black students even from all but nonexistent harms while essentially telling Jewish students, who are being actually assailed verbally, to just grow up. But to train young people, or any people, to think of themselves as weak is a form of abuse.
The contrast in treatment of Jewish and Black students furnishes a teaching moment. In my view, the solution is not to decide whether to penalize all hate speech or to allow all of it regardless of whom it is addressed to. Administrators should certainly decry and penalize not just antisemitism but racism on campuses when it is severe and pervasive and constitutes conduct. However, anyone who has made the mistake of thinking that a healthy Jewish soul must endure ongoing calls for the extermination of Israel might at least consider that a healthy Black soul can endure a sour tweet, a talk by someone who has opposed racial preferences and even the Mandarin expression “nèi ge.”