On Punditry, Implicit Bias, and Campus Racism

Generally-speaking — and findings below will tell you why — there is plenty to be dissatisfied, frustrated, and even downright angry about if you’re a student of color on a college or university campus in the United States. It should come as absolutely no surprise, then, that, within this larger context, the particular problems of racism at institutions such as the University of Missouri and Yale have pushed students to the breaking point and ignited protests on both campuses in recent weeks. The students’ indignation makes complete sense, and their expressions of protest, warts and all, should be understandable.

But that’s hardly the consensus among opinion writers. In one of her regular columns for the Los Angeles Times, for example, Meghan Daum refers to “tantrums” at Yale and Mizzou. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, predictably, surveys the landscape and sees only “jeering student mobs expressing incredulity at the idea of political democracy.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has devoted no less than five pieces to campus protest “bullies” this month.

It’s telling that most pundits aren’t really weighing in on the substance of these demonstrations, but rather things like the video clips showing some of the protesters at imprudent moments: an over-zealous instructor and others turning a student photographer away from protests at Mizzou, and incensed students at Yale confronting an administrator in a manner we’re not used to seeing. Of course, at Yale, it was that administrator who subsequently had to apologize to students. At Mizzou, the instructor in the clip made a formal written apology before the end of the day, while the protest organizers treated the incident as a teaching moment, clarifying the First Amendment rights of the press with signs at demonstration sites. That same evening, the student photographer, Tim Tai, expressed annoyance at how the video of his encounter with the protesters was being used, tweeting: “I’m a little perturbed at being part of the story, so maybe let’s focus some more reporting on systemic racism in higher ed institutions.” For those seeking to opine meaningfully about the protests at Mizzou and Yale, all of this should matter.

This is not to say that we can’t and shouldn’t ponder the questionable features and moments that make up a movement, but the sheer volume of opinion pieces and obsessive tweets by writers and journalists on only these aspects, at the expense of robust discussion about why these protests are happening in the first place, is evidence of a problem. As New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow — whose son Tahj attends Yale, where he was recently held at gunpoint by campus police (who said he fit the description of a person suspected of a crime) — put it:

…One must condemn the forces of anti-black oppression just as vociferously as one condemns black people’s responses to those forces, including when those responses extend beyond the boundaries of social acceptability and decorous propriety. Otherwise, one’s qualms are an overture to pacification and the propping up of the status quo. You can’t condemn the unseemly howl and not the lash.

If we are, in fact, seeking to avoid the pacification and propping up of the status quo that Blow warns against, then I think we need to talk about mistakes we’re making. The responses from Daum, Chait, and Friedersdorf offer opportunities to look at a few common missteps.

Friedersdorf’s “The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” for example, includes this ill-considered passage regarding the protests at Yale:

Those who purport to speak for marginalized students at elite colleges sometimes expose serious shortcomings in the way that their black, brown, or Asian classmates are treated, and would expose flaws in the way that religious students and ideological conservatives are treated too if they cared to speak up for those groups. I’ve known many Californians who found it hard to adjust to life in the Ivy League, where a faction of highly privileged kids acculturated at elite prep schools still set the tone of a decidedly East Coast culture. All else being equal, outsiders who also feel like racial or ethnic ‘others’ typically walk the roughest road of all.

The problem here is the startling lack of perspective. At FiveThirtyEight, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Ben Casselman crunch statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and find that “at most of these schools, like at Mizzou, African-Americans are underrepresented relative to their share of the 18- to 24-year-old population in the state where the university is located…[and] racial disparities are even larger at private colleges [like Yale].” They also point out that “the racial gap in college completion — the percentage of students who earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrollment — is wide across the country and is particularly stark at top universities,” and that “it doesn’t appear that the racial gap in graduation rates is narrowing.”

Vox’s Libby Nelson also notes that only 4% of full professors in the U.S. are black, and points to a 2007 estimate from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which suggests that, at the current rate of progress, “it [will] take 150 years for universities’ professoriate to reflect the diversity of American society.”

In addition, earlier this year, the Huffington Post’s Alexandra Svokos reported on a study from Harvard’s Voices of Diversity Project which found that while “diversity on college campuses has increased,” women and minorities “still face prejudice and discrimination” that “creates unwelcoming environments and can be detrimental to academic performance.” The Project’s director and lead author of the study, clinical and research psychologist Paula Caplan, told Svokos: “It’s clear that it doesn’t matter if it’s a public or private college, doesn’t matter how big the school is, doesn’t matter where it’s located geographically. From a public university in the Deep South to an Ivy League university, we’re finding the same thing.”

What’s more, the FBI’s conservative estimate in their just-released 2014 Hate Crime Statistics report is that nearly one-tenth of all hate crimes, many of them racially or ethnically motivated, are committed on the campuses of schools, colleges, and universities. (Inside Higher Ed also reported today that so far this month “more than a dozen college campuses have been targeted by shooting and bomb threats, with many of them threatening black students.”)

Leaving these facts out of opinion pieces about campus protests against racism is probably unwise; comparing the experiences of “Californians” to the experiences of students of color without talking about these facts is certainly reprehensible.

A more basic failure to get the facts of current events right is a big problem too. For instance, while Daum tries admirably to convince her fellow members of the “commentariat” to examine their responses to the protesters, she still writes that “Yale doesn’t have quite the same troubled racial legacy that Missouri does,” and limits her description of the situation there to two recent incidents: a “white girls only” party, and a series of university emails about Halloween costumes and cultural sensitivity. But this is not quite accurate, and activists and others have been going out of their way to make this point. In a widely circulated piece entitled “What’s Really Going On At Yale,” student Aaron Z. Lewis writes:

…the protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party. They’re about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day. They’re about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long. The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn’t.

Bruce Shapiro, who is executive director for Columbia’s Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma and an instructor at Yale, unpacks this a bit, writing for The Nation that:

Twenty-fifteen has been a highly charged year for African-American and other minority students at Yale. January began with the gunpoint detention of Tahj Blow, son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, putting on a global stage the irrefutable fact that matriculation at an elite university is no protection against potentially lethal encounters between police and African-Americans. Throughout this same year, Yale students, faculty, and alumni have been locked in painstaking consideration of whether to rebrand the residential college, named since 1933 for the preeminent champion of slavery John C. Calhoun. (Test: Can you imagine any American university maintaining a dorm called Himmler Hall?) The professors who lead all of Yale’s residential colleges—its dorm system—have been publicly debating whether to abandon the provocative title of ‘master,’ with its unhappy echoes. And perhaps most significantly, students have looked on powerlessly as Yale has lost one preeminent minority faculty member after another to other schools—most recently poet and literature scholar Elizabeth Alexander to Columbia and acclaimed anthropologist and LGBT researcher Karen Nakamura to Berkeley.

It’s not just students who are upset at these losses. Many sober, non-alarmist Yale professors believe the university—despite elevating the distinguished African-American historian Jonathan Holloway to dean of Yale College—is in a genuine crisis. Most recently anthropology professor William Kelly went public with his fury over Nakamura’s departure, charging Yale’s leaders with “a very strong failure of nerve and imagination,” and being “uninterested and incompetent in addressing the issues of retaining diverse faculty.”

This is what has really been going on at Yale for the last year.

There is also the problem of opinion writers lazily trying to fit round stories (about systemic racism) into a pre-existing square narrative (about how college kids are too PC, coddled, and uncivil, and hate free speech). Chait writes, “The student protest at the University of Missouri began as a response to a serious problem — outbursts of vile racism on campus — and quickly devolved into an expression of a renewed left-wing hostility to freedom of expression.” No, it didn’t, and the only way anyone could think that is if he or she is not really engaging with the story, but rather cherry-picking it for episodes to strip of context and fit into his or her own pre-drawn conclusion.

Finally, there is the issue of implicit bias in journalism to consider. It may or may not be reflected in these opinion pieces, but effectively countering it nonetheless requires everyone’s willingness to explore the possibility. “The phrase has become a buzzword used to broadly frame bigotry and racism as something so entrenched that some people aren’t aware that they subconsciously harbor racist feelings, associating black skin with negative behavior,” writes Kirsten West Savali for The Root. Noting that studies have revealed much about implicit racial bias in law enforcement, health care, and the legal profession, she points out that “some media professionals don’t even realize” how their work can “reaffirm for many Americans what they think they know about black people.”

There’s also very little diversity in media organizations to help keep implicit bias in check. (Though, as West Savali explains, implicit bias is often so pervasive that it can affect writers and journalists of color as well.) The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University’s 2015 Census found that “the percentage of minority journalists has hovered between 12 and 14 percent for more than a decade…[and] the number of minority leaders has dropped by 3 percentage points, with 12 percent of participating organizations saying at least one of their top three editors is a person of color.” ASNE hopes “to have the percentage of minorities working in newsrooms nationwide reflect the percentage of minorities in the nation’s population by 2025,” though things will have to change quickly and dramatically to make that happen: as they note, “minorities make up 37.02 percent of the U.S. population,” and the U.S. Census bureau predicts “that number will increase to 42.39 percent by 2025.”

Similarly, the findings of the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University’s Annual Survey for this year show that “in the last 25 years, the minority population in the U.S. has risen 11.5 points; but the minority workforce in TV news is up less than half that (4.4), and the minority workforce in radio is actually down by a full point.”

As protests grow on other campuses, those news-gathering and opining about them should resolve to do better than they have by students at Yale and Mizzou. At the very least, we have to get these stories right and avoid the vulgarity of reducing them to occasions for jumping on our free speech hobbyhorse or our “kids these days” hobbyhorse or whatever it is. Listening carefully and trying to be as honest and thoroughgoing as possible in our reporting and analysis — these things are literally the very least we can do.

About Daniel Clarkson Fisher

Daniel Clarkson Fisher is a Toronto-based oral historian whose most recent work is the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project (CJOHP.org), a digital storytelling initiative inspired by his partner Stephanie Lyn and her family. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media from Ryerson University, and is currently a contract lecturer in that program.
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