The Cause Deserves Better: Student Protests and Racial Equality – Andrew Chen ’11

One day in second grade, a classmate came to my desk.  “Chinese mother!” he said, pulling up the corners of his eyelids. “Japanese father!” he continued, pulling them down. “Mixed-up child!” One eyelid was up, the other down.

As I got older, moments like this kept happening. Sometimes they were annoying, sometimes threatening – “What’re you gonna do about it, you ****ing chink?” – but always exclusionary.  For many young people, this exclusion in the classroom can lead to isolation in other forms of social interaction, something I see daily in my work directing a legal clinic for homeless youth in Los Angeles.

Therefore, when I read about the recent incidents which triggered student protests at Missouri and Yale, their pain and anger resonated both personally and professionally. They are right to organize, demonstrate, and speak up against racial exclusion.

In speaking up, however, many of these students have shouted others down. In rallying against intimidating and threatening speech, they have intimidated and threatened others. Students at Missouri forcibly excluded journalists from their protests, claiming the public square as their private “safe place,” while others at Yale surrounded and screamed at a college master merely for disagreeing with them.

Many modern activists seem to have abandoned the principles that motivated the icons who came before them – that every person has individual dignity and worth, even those who persecute or discriminate against you. These new activists don’t appear to think this way. They come off as believing themselves superior to their “enemies”. In doing so, they alienate good people who might otherwise listen, and divide their supporters amongst themselves. No end-game with this sort of cynicism results in real peace. If the enemy is irredeemable, “peace” can only come through the use of force.

It is this idea, that progress and peace must be achieved by imposing your will on others, which is truly repugnant. It is baffling that activists claiming the legacy of the fight against slavery and Jim Crow are now resorting to the coercive tactics of cults and totalitarian regimes. This is not the kind of progressive movement I believe in. This is not the future I want to help build.

Political capital for progressive issues is limited. There is only so much time, media attention, and public will to make change happen, and the divisive approach of these students drains that capital. For me, the stakes are personal, as the vast majority of the youth I work for are people of color. They are homeless, gay, transgender, abused, drug-addicted, and mentally ill. They live day-to-day, meal-to-meal, and under the constant threat of mortal violence. We fight to dispute thousands of dollars in fines, convince school districts to provide an education, and to find a safe place to live.

When I hear activists claim that an allegedly insensitive letter is causing students to break down, and when I witness so-called progressives threatening and shoving journalists, I see a swiftly emptying hourglass of attention for progressive issues and for my clients. We can’t let that happen.

Many 21st-century activists dismiss these concerns as ignorance: “They don’t get it because they don’t know what it’s like.” They’re right in a sense: Only black students know what it is like to walk in their shoes, and when they discuss their experiences, we should make a genuine effort to listen and empathize. But empathy can be abused. Taking the time to listen doesn’t mean giving up your right to speak, or even to disagree.

Others say criticizing protesters distracts from the real issue: racial injustice. For them, the cause is too important to give activists anything less than unquestioning support. But the fight against racial injustice needs our best ideas, and those ideas will only come through an open dialogue, one where people aren’t afraid to challenge the consensus. Thus it is precisely because this issue is so important that we must be open to criticism of advocacy. If we are not, people of goodwill will turn away, great ideas will be lost, and progress will fail.

Recently, the students camping in protest at Mizzou have started welcoming the media. I am hopeful that positive changes like this will continue. But the toxic beliefs we saw bubble to the surface recently remain a threat to progress. There is no place for that behavior. My clients don’t have time for it, and neither should any person working for justice.

Andrew Y. Chen, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Public Counsel in Los Angeles, supervises a legal clinic for homeless youth in Venice, California.

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