Late last semester, the Daily published two cartoons that infuriated the campus NAACP and garnered regional media attention. The issue had largely faded from the public eye, but last week the University’s Student Relations Advisory Council joined the fray by penning an open letter on the subject in this paper (An open letter to the Daily, 02/03/2006).
I had never heard of the committee, but on face, it seemed quite legit. Then I read what it wrote: “There are indeed situations, such as a newspaper dedicated to serving an entire campus community, in which the abovementioned Fourteenth Amendment trumps the First.” The SRAC, composed of highly educated faculty members and bright young students, somehow concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee to equal protection under the law could be construed as a speech code.
It’s interesting to note that the University once had a speech code. It was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. Indeed, there’s nothing in the Constitution that protects individuals from hate speech; the Constitution protects such speech.
All this isn’t to say the Daily should publish hate speech. There’s a very real case to be made against the cartoons, and I respect that. If the SRAC had stopped at saying that the Daily needs to be more sensitive in its editorial practices, I would have likely agreed.
But the group’s message was severely tarnished when it embarrassingly suggested that the Fourteenth Amendment could operate as a speech code. The group lost a good deal of credibility; its suggestions were easier to disregard. And to be fully honest, because it’s an official committee, it made the University look stupid.
Yet this twisted and embarrassing logic is not confined to University committees, and I’m not writing this column to defend the Daily from the SRAC. Rather, the SRAC blunder is indicative of a broader problem: Progressive student groups have this terrible habit of discrediting themselves in the eyes of the campus mainstream. They pick bad battles, use terrible rhetoric and find themselves banished from the realm of relevance. That’s unfortunate, because resolving many of the persistent race-related issues we face would help foster a better campus environment.
The indefatigable pro-affirmative action group BAMN exemplifies all that can go wrong with student activism. The group throws around the word “racist” as a catch-all for anyone who isn’t militantly pro-affirmative action. It imports black high school students to curse, spit on and yell at the aforementioned racists. BAMN activists have been arrested for acting in violent and disruptive ways. As an institution, BAMN never realizes the folly of its strategy – and maintains that it, not University lawyers, successfully defended affirmative action in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Everyone else realizes these problems with BAMN. Groups like Students Supporting Affirmative Action have sprung up as mainstream alternatives to BAMN. The NAACP publicly condemned BAMN last semester. BAMN is everything every other progressive organization hopes not to become.
Yet organizations like SSAA are slowly slipping into the same trap as BAMN, though not intentionally. Misplaced furor and overused rhetoric have made well-intentioned progressive groups less effective and less relevant than they would otherwise have been.
Recently, several progressive organizations, including SSAA, kicked out three members who joined the secret society Michigamua. The underlying rationale was that Michigamua is racist, and progressive groups can’t tolerate members who sympathize with a racist organization.
Yet the entire case for Michigander’s supposed racism relies on its contentious, pre-2000 history. Just last year, the group tapped an Asian (Dennis Lee), a South Asian (Neal Pancholi), a self-described social justice advocate (Sam Woll) and an LGBT activist (Brian Hull). Despite this, campus progressives seem perfectly OK leveling accusations of persistent racism and discrimination.
Ironically, sympathy for the progressive Michigamua members (who appear as victims) has probably worked to bolster public support for the society.
Just yesterday, the former vice president of the campus NAACP chapter, Alex Moffett, sent an e-mail around campus in which she called for unity in the campus struggle against “racist practices” at The Michigan Daily.
That’s a pretty serious charge. But it isn’t warranted. There’s a critical difference between “racist practices,” which implies systematic and pervasive racism, and publishing two insensitive cartoons. At worst, the Daily editors who presided over the cartoon crisis (including me) were guilty of bad judgement in publishing the second cartoon by Alexander Honkala (Fetid Chumbucket, 12/08/2005). The first cartoon (The Bien Archives, 11/28/2006), however, needs no apology; Michelle Bien’s illustration fits squarely within the debate over affirmative action.
Accusations of racism when none are warranted simply detract from the meaning of the word. If the word is watered down, it becomes irrelevant. And when nobody believes racism is a problem because the word carries no significance – or because nobody is listening – progress ceases.
I’m not writing to defend this paper and my reputation. I’m writing because I think those fighting for civil rights are pushing themselves off a cliff by picking bad battles and fighting them poorly. Moffett, BAMN, the SRAC and the groups mentioned earlier may believe they are acting in minority communities’ best interest. They’re not. They’re just making it more difficult for real racial problems to register on the public radar – because every time “racist” gets used when it’s not warranted, it becomes that much easier to ignore the word when it is.
Momin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org