I was approached by Sam Burnstein in early February 2021 to join the ORGANIZE campaign as the Medical School representative for the Central Student Government of the University of Michigan. I was hesitant to join a campaign I knew nothing about, and I considered running as an independent candidate. However, a few of my medical school peers knew Burnstein and gave him a cursory thumbs up. I learned a bit about the campaign platform and decided to run under ORGANIZE with Burnstein as the vice presidential candidate — with my primary intention being to adequately represent the Medical School in CSG.
Perhaps naively, I felt ORGANIZE was doing well after it received endorsements from multiple student and community organizations. However, the campaign took a painful turn on election night. Screenshots were released on Twitter by an individual who met Burnstein on a dating application, showing Burnstein had “liked” tweets in 2017 that included xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Burnstein made a public apology and unliked the tweets, and ultimately stepped down from the ticket.
The views that Burnstein validated were — and still are — disgusting and should be universally condemned. However, those “likes” were from when Burnstein was a junior in high school. I speculate this was a time when he was uneducated and influenced by his surroundings. But I believe in the possibility of redemption. Consider a 16-year-old child arrested for carrying half an ounce of some drug. Should we support years behind bars that would ruin their entire life?
Regardless of personal opinion, everything about this election felt nasty and unpleasant. It was shocking that a university level student government election — which should have been a fairly benign process — evolved into a personal smearing of an undergraduate and involved deeply heavy topics such as racism and xenophobia.
The reactions to this election were expectedly strong, polarized and imperfect — my own included. The whole affair was representative of a greater question we are encountering in America: In a multicultural society with an unaddressed racist and discriminatory history that continues to influence the present day, can we co-exist?
The demand for justice has been swept under the rug for too long. The urge to correct the wrongs of the past and present is exploding in the spaces where it was once hidden as frustration, anger and sometimes revenge.
In this instance, a student body grappled with whether a white male who once held intolerable views as a youth was worthy to remain in the public sphere. Our whole nation is battling to determine what views and actions require hard lines without room for middle ground, others which have more space for ambiguity and some which demand retribution.
I do wonder, if we are digging into the obnoxious teen behavior of a student during a low-stakes college election, how far will we go to win a national election? What is the future of our prized democracy? There will ultimately be a need for some great reconciliation to address the injustices of the past that continue to spill over into the present.
Irada Choudhuri is a third-year student at the University of Michigan Medical School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.