Donald Trump has announced repeatedly over the last week that he wants the support of African-American voters but many African-Americans of various ideological stripes expressed either skepticism or said they were offended by the language of his appeal: “You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”
Many thoughtfully suggested that he was unfairly putting black voters and families into a box in which many don’t belong. They are correct. Many African-Americans live in the suburbs rather than the inner cities of places like Chicago and Baltimore, make very good livings and send their children to some of the best schools in the country. And Mr. Trump would have been well advised to be clearer in his language. Yet the plight of those African-Americans left behind to live in our inner city ghettoes is very real.
Whatever your position is on Mr. Trump, the mere mention of his name prompts supporters and critics alike to speak out. The major difference between our society and others is that we have the right to disagree with one another and to express our opinions. Unfortunately, while student activists on college campuses take full advantage of their right to speak out, some don’t feel the right should be extended to those with whom they disagree. What’s worse is the refusal of some to bother to either argue with or try to convince those with whom they disagree of the rightness of their own views. Instead they dismiss them as racists or misanthropes and demand that they shut up.
As an African-American student at Williams College, I have observed unwarranted accusations of racism and bigotry. But rarely do I see aggrieved minority student activists give the benefit of the doubt to those whom they feel have offended them. To be clear, my argument is not simply that we need more speech on college campuses. What student activists need to pursue is constructive speech and principled self-criticism. When minority students feel offended by the doings and sayings of others, instead of saying: “You’re a racist, and because you are white and privileged you should not be a part of conversations about justice or democracy until you adopt my views and become less ignorant,” student activists should be saying things like: “I disagree with what you said. I find that statement insensitive or offensive because it overlooks certain experiences that I and other minorities face on campus. However, I would like to better understand your point of view.”
After all, there are a variety of ways student activists who endorse and participate in Black Lives Matter protests can constructively express their grievances and articulate their views, but falling back on victimhood as a reason for ignoring opposing viewpoints is neither consistent with what a college or university should be nor likely to increase the tolerance and understanding we all seek.
I admire the efforts of student activists to challenge their peers to be more empathetic. From my experience, student activists generally mean well, but they do their own efforts more harm than good when they make presumptions of guilt about the motives and beliefs of white students they don’t even know. This tendency toward accusatory expression stifles free debate on campuses and further diminishes the quality of our national dialogue on the issue of race.
Many activists unapologetically give little consideration to conservative views of race in America. Yet they expect anyone with a moral compass to endorse their slogans, embrace their agenda, and validate their emotions. As a minority who wants race relations in America to improve, I sharply disagree.
If student activists want not just to be heard, but to change things and enrich the conversations America has about race, they should be more willing to entertain opposing views and begin doing the hard work of explaining their grievances constructively rather than blaming racism and bigotry unreflectively for experiences they don’t like.
• Zachary Wood is a junior majoring in Political Science and president of Uncomfortable Learning at Williams College.