- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2017

John McWhorter, a black author of race relations and associate professor at Columbia University, criticized racially segregated safe spaces and the suppression of speech on college campuses during a discussion in Colorado this week.

Mr. McWhorter joined New York Times columnist Frank Bruni Thursday at the Aspen Ideas Festival in a discussion published by The Atlantic, which co-hosted the event with The Aspen Institute. Mr. McWhorter, a linguist who teaches English and comparative literature at Columbia, argued that the current “assault on free speech” sweeping college campuses can be blamed on social media, not President Trump.

“I don’t think it’s because of the president we happen to have in office. I think it’s social media,” he said. “I think it’s inevitable that with the rise of social media you would have this assault on free speech on campus, in the same way that I don’t think there would have been a tea party if it weren’t for Twitter and Facebook. I don’t think that it was Obama as the key factor.”

Mr. McWhorter, author of the 2017 book “Talking Back, Talking Black,” said the idea that students of color need to shield themselves from incessant racism by creating racially segregated safe spaces is purely “theater.”

“I think anybody in their more sober moments understands that even though racism exists and microaggressions are real, college campuses are perhaps the least racist spots on earth,” he argued. “And the idea that any student is undergoing a constant litany of constant racist abuse is theater, it’s theatrical — you hate to say that to somebody 19 years old, but it’s not true.”

Mr. McWhorter said the purpose of higher education is to expand one’s horizons, and that the current state of academia is failing students in achieving that goal.

“When I was in college in the eighties, Republicans were thought of as ridiculous,” he said. “I remember living in a hall at one point and there were Republicans down at the end. And you were supposed to think of them as some sort of vermin. Nobody questioned this. It was during the Reagan era. And I couldn’t help noticing that they were also some of the nicest people on the hallway. Over the years I learned that I was not a Republican, but I could see how you could be one and have a coherent worldview.

“And it happened from listening to them and eating lunch with them,” he continued. “And now they’re in my swimming pools! That is an experience that I don’t think students are having as much these days. That means education is failing them. They’re thinking life is much simpler than it is. They’re not learning how to think.”

Turning to the subject of white privilege, Mr. McWhorter said that while people who are born white might have a greater chance at success, being born black isn’t an automatic sentence to poverty and despair.

“It doesn’t mean that there aren’t a great many white people who are suffering. But the whole white privilege idea, it used to be called societal racism or institutional racism. The term started to weaken so we now say white privilege because it grabs people more by the collar,” he argued. “So I’ll use it. White privilege is real. The issue is that it shouldn’t be used as something to shut down conversation, to inculcate unreligious people with a new sense of original sin.”

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