Racism on Campus – Not Free Speech – Is the Real Story: Mainstream Media Are Missing the Mark

Of all the images that accompanied articles on the recent protests against systemic racism at the University of Missouri, a screenshot of a professor shouting at a student photojournalist somehow became one of the most prevalent.

“I need some muscle over here,” said Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communications at Missouri, attempting to grab his camera.
“Help me get this reporter out of here.” Anyone following events at the university has likely read this quote many times over.

As the clip gained traction on social media, national news organizations began to pay attention. The New York Times ran an article describing the incident on its website’s home page. The Atlantic, now infamous for its articles lambasting college students for being “hypersensitive,” followed up with a piece by Conor Friedersdorf calling Click’s outburst an example of the problem with the idea of “safe space.”

Part of the media obsession with Click clearly had to do with the nature of the subject itself: threats to journalists tend to draw the attention of journalists. But looking at student accounts from that week show that the story was about much more than
a confrontation between protesters and a photographer. The incident became a media distraction from the real issues – direct threats to students, and the complicity of faculty and school officials in them.

As part of the free speech backlash, some journalists took it upon themselves to educate student protesters on how to be proper activists.

“To truly demonstrate self-determination, activists would do well to also learn how to use the media to amplify their story,” wrote Deborah Douglas and Afi-Odelia Scruggs in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Journalists effectively turned the spotlight on themselves and used protest movements led by Black students against systemic racism and violence as a platform for their own voices. The sophisticated organizing and concrete successes of these movements
– the University of Missouri system president resigned within days, after all – were ignored. Instead, student activists were told they need a lesson in working with media.

“Here was an activist group that needed us to get their message out and they were trying to shut us down,” Brian Kratzer, a journalist reporting on the events for the Columbia Missourian, told NPR. “Maybe they didn’t understand how public spaces work.”

The focus on free speech offered an easy critique of student activists. An important but abstract principle was elevated to become the crux of the story.

This strategy is one that New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb called that week “victim-blaming with a software update.” The First Amendment
narrative has allowed the media to disregard daily threats students of color are calling attention to at Missouri, Yale and dozens of other campuses.

“To understand the real complexities of these students’ situation,” Cobb wrote, “free-speech purists would have to grapple with what it means to live in a building named for a man who dedicated himself to the principle of white supremacy and to the ownership
of your ancestors.” Cobb was referring to Yale, where students have been fighting to change the name of Calhoun College, named after the Confederate general.

In stories on the Yale protests, reporters honed in on a video of a student confronting a residential college master over an email as further evidence of a supposed threat to free speech. But the reasons for students’ mobilization – racialized harassment
and administrative complicity in it – were repeatedly ignored.

Junior Briana Burroughs called attention to the deeply unsafe campus culture students continue to fight against when she described ways she’d been
verbally and physically harassed at fraternity parties.

“Fear paralyzed me as their discussions of my Black body and hair turned into taunts and fondling. Every incident included jeering and pointing, and some included spanking and screaming,” wrote Burroughs in the Yale Daily News. “Most, however, went
unnoticed.”

As Yale senior Aaron Lewis pointed out on Medium, media discussion of campus activism created a split dynamic: A free-speech focus obscures
the pressing problem of racism on campus. “People have lost sight of the larger issue: systemic racism on campus,” Lewis wrote.

The loss of focus on systemic racism that Lewis mentioned has become especially evident as free speech has been intellectualized as the problem of the “new student activism,” and liberal college campuses.

This came into focus at Yale when Erika Christakis, a live-in administrator at one of the residential colleges, questioned administrative cautioning against culturally appropriative Halloween costumes.

“American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience,” she wrote in an email to students. “Increasingly,
it seems they have become places of censure and prohibition.”

Christakis pointed to the tired argument that US college students are creating environments of liberal intolerance through the tyranny of “safe spaces” and trigger warnings. In doing so, she negated the real threats cultural appropriation can cause to
students of color.

Should students really be required to educate their peers on the inappropriateness of wearing a feather headdress or blackface? Colleges are expected to address overt threats to the mental and physical health of their students. At the New Republic, Roxane Gay questioned whether those who make statements like Christakis’ would believe that racism fell into this category.

“Christakis suggests we take our arguments out of their real-world context – eliding real people in the process – and instead move them into the realm of the theoretical, where no one can feel hurt,” she wrote.

The tendency to intellectualize these situations distracts from the severity of racism and harassment and the threats to students’ safety that are all too real.

Students like Lewis, the Yale senior, make clear they don’t see free speech principles as incompatible with fighting administrative complicity in racial injustice. But in working toward a clearer understanding of the climates these students are resisting,
the polarization fostered by many media accounts made this work harder.

“There’s absolutely no reason we can’t acknowledge both the value of free speech and the reality of the prejudice that students of color face everyday,” wrote Lewis. “It saddens me that this has gotten to the point where people feel like they have to
take sides.”

Since the week of November 9, media focus has shifted. International attacks by ISIS and the mass shootings in California and Colorado have rightfully commanded headlines in the past two weeks.

However, looking back to that week – when media attention was very much focused on college protests against racism and this question of free speech – tells us much about how most news organizations think about student activists. As protests continue on
campuses nationwide, Mrinal Kumar, a Yale Daily News columnist, called attention to the real power that students, undeterred by critical media attention,
have in creating real change.

“The last two weeks have proven that we have the power to incite change not only at Yale but also on campuses across the nation,” Kumar said. “But we can’t afford to stop there.”