Four days after James T. Hodgkinson opened fire on a group of Republican congressmen at a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, Trinity Professor Johnny Eric Williams sided with anonymous blogger “Son of Baldwin,” who proposed that black emergency personnel should let wounded white people die rather than lend assistance. Baldwin posted his opinions under the hashtag, #LetThemFuckingDie.
Professor Williams linked Son of Baldwin’s statement, adopted the hashtag as his own, and posted some additional denunciations of white Americans for “their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.” Referring to all “self-identified ‘whites,’” he wrote, “The time is now to confront these inhuman assholes and end this now.”
But after Trinity Dean and Vice President Tom Cresswell reviewed Williams’ statements, he returned with a 31-page report that found his Facebook posts were “extramural utterances” protected by Trinity College’s policy of academic freedom. Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney endorsed Dean Cresswell’s findings, and added that she doesn’t “condone the hashtag” which “offend[s] me personally” and “contradicts our fundamental institutional values.” Nevertheless, Williams has been reinstated in good standing.
Trinity reached the decision because, like many other colleges, it has failed to draw meaningful lines between valid and invalid claims on academic freedom. That failure plunges colleges ever deeper into the mire of ethnic chauvinism, categorical hatreds, anti-intellectual diatribe, mind-deadening vulgarity, and psychopathology. Worse, we are getting used to this mire and finding it harder to defend essential distinctions. If we are at the point where #LetThemFuckingDie is upheld as a wholesome exercise in “extra-mural” academic speech, we are in serious trouble.
Trinity’s dilemma is in large part a matter of a double standard, created to coddle black radicals on campus. The prevailing view among colleges and universities is that robust declarations of racial resentment by African-American professors or students should be considered within the bounds of academic freedom. This allowance is a one-way street. Similarly abusive language from a white or Asian professor would almost certainly be met with severe sanctions.
Angry Politics Have Trumped Scholarship
Trinity’s decision is but one incident of many in which college officials granted a pass to “hate speech” by radical professors. In 2015, Boston University Professor Saida Grundy received a slap on the wrist after tweeting: “Why is America so reluctant to identify white college males as a population problem?” Earlier this year, Texas A&M Professor Tommy Curry quietly skirted dismissal after an interview emerged in which he said “look, in order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people may have to die.” Students too get a pass.
Gordon Barnes, editor-in-chief of The Advocate, the CUNY graduate student newspaper, published an editorial in fall 2014 “In Support of Violence.” Barnes declared, “The time for peace has passed; indeed it never existed in this country.” He specifically called for violence against the police: “Violence directed towards state representatives is not only warranted, it is necessary.” CUNY apparently thought nothing amiss in Barnes’ extra-mural utterances. To the contrary, in 2017 the CUNY Graduate Center featured Barnes for a “Ph.D. Snapshot” to advertise its history program.
Remarks by a faculty member or a graduate student advocating violence against racial groups might well be reasonable grounds for strong sanctions, including possible dismissal. But this hasn’t happened because colleges and universities have appointed so many faculty members who present themselves as authentic voices of black rage. It is plainly difficult to call someone to account for doing exactly what he was hired to do. Rage-filled black professors are not going to lose their positions for expressing rage.
This situation grew out of decades in which colleges went out of their way to appoint black faculty members who held separatist views and who affected angry attitudes as a badge of authenticity. The initial impetus for such appointments came from liberal white professors who argued that recruiting in this vein would help the colleges retain black students, many of whom couldn’t seem to come to grips with the traditional curriculum and the mostly white faculty that taught it.
We saw this reflected in the Faculty Minutes of Bowdoin College, when we were researching the study that became “What Does Bowdoin Teach?” Faced with the skepticism of his colleagues, Professor Daniel Levine pushed for the immediate creation of Afro-American Studies in 1969. Bowdoin had no one qualified to teach the program. Levin responded by insisting, over and over, “It must be so!” He got his way. Bowdoin dived head first into creating a program grounded in angry politics, rather than scholarship.
How 1960s Policies Shaped Our Environment
These days, many people charitably attribute the frustrations of blacks on campus to inequities in society at large. Those inequities exist, but the campus rage has much more to do with late 1960s decisions by colleges such as Bowdoin to structure black experience in college in a way that guaranteed perpetual maladjustment and resentment. Hire professors of resentment studies who favor black segregation, and you will get more resentment and more desire for segregation. Insist that many black students be admitted at a lower standard of performance than other students, and you will get students primed for the resentment narrative. When these students rebel, high on the list of their demands is the appointment of still more professors of resentment studies. There is now a plain career track for people like Johnny Eric Williams, who specialize in their own rage.
Many black students have a sophisticated understanding of how their colleges are manipulating them. One of Wesleyan’s first black students has since described his admission to Wesleyan as an “experiment.” But it is an experiment that has been institutionalized, and black students can recognize it without understanding how to escape it.
Black students respond to their peculiar situation by seeking refuge in ethnic enclaves in which mutual feelings of oppression are affirmed and reinforced, and where impatience festers until a catalyst for racial grievance inspires student protests. An early instance of this pattern emerged in February 1969, when a group of black Wesleyan students broke into and occupied Fisk Hall after school officials refused to cancel classes in observance of services commemorating Malcolm X. The students refused to vacate the building until administrators conceded to demands for increased academic support (remedial services), an exclusively black residence hall and cultural center, and a black studies department headed by tenured black professors. The Wesleyan protest preceded by two months the more widely reported armed protest at Cornell University.
The 1969 protest at Wesleyan wrung concessions from the administration, but it also set a precedent. In 1990, Sudhama Ranganathan acted in accordance with this script when he hurled two Molotov cocktails through President William M. Chace’s office window, according to the New York Times, in retaliation for Wesleyan’s “failure to promote the rights of minorities.” (Ranganathan, who was the nephew of a Wesleyan professor, pled guilty and received probation.)
This dynamic persists in varying degrees at most, if not all, elite colleges today even as more and more diversity dollars are devoted to programs and services exclusive to students of color. And it’s how reputable schools like Trinity College and Texas A&M end up with a Johnny Eric Williams or Tommy Curry. “More black professors” is a dog whistle for recruitment of humanities and social science professors who reinforce students’ identitarian impulses.
Concession is a convenient option for white administrators ignorant of or unwilling to address mismatching’s harmful effects on students and university culture.
Colleges Have A Responsibility To Their Students
Because Trinity is a private university, it could draw up rules that prohibited such speech as outside the zone of academic freedom. Most Americans would probably agree that Williams crossed some kind of line in making his death wish (“#LetThemFuckingDie”) and compounded it by denying the humanity of other people (“inhuman assholes”). The First Amendment might protect Williams’ right to say such things, but academic freedom does not, and the college has a duty to its students to provide instructional faculty who possess enough self-control to tell the difference.
Trinity College may find some comfort in knowing that it is only one college among a great many to have made the kind of compromise that led to its Johnny Eric Williams moment. Trinity President Berger-Sweeney did her best in playing a bad hand when she distinguished between defending Williams’ “right to express his opinions” and her distaste for some of those opinions.
If colleges are to be more than platforms from which people can shout their disordered fury, more than stages for the perpetual reenactment of racial and other grievances, we should be working now to draw some lines. A man like Johnny Eric Williams should not be a professor at a college that claims the public trust. He has, however, fairly won his fight, given the rules we accepted in higher education. That simply means it is time to change the rules.