On November 12, CNN political commentator Sally Kohn published an article titled, “Don’t be too quick to judge Yale protesters.” In this article, Ms. Kohn defends Yale students who protested against their school’s alleged insensitivity in not banning potentially “offensive” Halloween costumes and the remarks of two of their professors who, in effect, told them to grow up.
Here is my response as posted on CNN.com:
I’ll focus on Ms. Kohn’s use of the words “institutional racism.” In this case, as in the case in Missouri and other campuses, this term is being applied with ferocity. Alternately, you may hear “systemic racism.”
Where, Ms. Kohn, does this “institutional racism” exist and what proof it there of it’s existence?
Institutional or systemic racism implies a concerted and intentional effort to deny the rights and privileges of a particular group based on race and color. Is Missouri purposely excluding black students and faculty? Is Yale itself endorsing racist behavior on campus?
Or, in the case of the Yale professors, were they simply acknowledging that the institution plays a limited part in the lives of allegedly adult students and that the students themselves should address legitimate offenses, if and when they occur.
Remember that this entire furor started BEFORE there was any offense!
Should we be upset when, if and where we encounter or witness racism? Certainly, but protests and events of the past several years would have us believe that racism in 2015 is not limited to the few ignorant or entrenched bigots who still judge others based on color. No-the implication is that America is a nation of racists and our current institutions, both government and private, are perpetrating a clear and purposeful plan of discrimination and racial subjugation.
It’s not happening.
Ironically, I just visited the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site in Atlanta. I sat in the Ebeneezer Baptist Church and listened to a recording of one of Dr. King’s most moving sermons. As I viewed the artifacts of Dr. King’s life and the images of people being beaten, hosed and attacked by dogs, I couldn’t help but think about what Dr. King and the people who stood with him would think about today’s movement.
I couldn’t help but think that they would be sickened––that what’s going on today is an affront to the real dangers they faced and the sacrifices they made––which in Dr. King’s case was, of course, the ultimate sacrifice.
Blacks in the 1960s did face “institutional racism.” There were actual courts and law enforcement officials who beat and arrested people because of their color and determined that white murderers, rapists and thugs would not be prosecuted or convicted––if, of course, their victims were black. There was actual discrimination and segregation––despite the fact that these practices had been outlawed by the federal government and jim-crow was the functional law-of-the-land in much of the country.
There was a great hesitancy to prosecute these offenses on the part of even the President and his Attorney General for fear that to do so would inflame the situation. These leaders who were slow to bring the hammer of justice down were none other than the now revered Kennedy brothers. THAT was institutional racism. Dr. King himself was not welcomed as a champion of human rights––not at first. He was investigated by the government as an agitator. Many of his own people cautioned him that the time was not right to bring the issue to a boil––that this would only hurt the black cause.
In his book Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King recalls the visit of one of Africa’s newly established black heads-of-state who was “called upon by a delegation of prominent American Negroes. When they began reciting to him their long list of grievances, the visiting statesman had waved a weary hand and said:
“‘I am aware of current events. I know everything you are telling me about what the white man is doing to the Negro. Now tell me: What is the Negro doing for himself?’”
Am I blaming the victim for the alleged crime? Am I implying that Dr. King was doing the same?
Absolutely not. What I am saying is that Dr. King’s message was one of responsibility. I am also saying that what today’s students are protesting is completely out of scale.
Dr. King and many others fought and gave their lives, figuratively and literally to end institutional racism and discrimination. Dr. King acknowledged in his time that it was all too easy for white society, and white government in particular, to simply say, “We’ve passed the laws, our work is done.” It wasn’t––the laws were still not being enforced. Racism was still an institutionalized and systemic practice.
He adds, “When he seeks opportunity, he is told, in effect, to lift himself up by his own bootstraps, advice that does not take into account the fact that he is barefoot.”
Dr. King and his peers didn’t stop at stamping their bare feet in protest––they started making shoes.
There was much work to be done––there is much work to be done––but to imply or even insinuate that there is an intentional, purposeful effort to practice and promote “institutional racism” is simply wrong.
If you make this implication, Ms. Kohn, where is your proof? This effort would require a monumental and secretive plot the scope and scale of which even our most skilled intelligence operatives would be incapable of conducting.
I acknowledge completely that there is still work to do, but this work is societal rather than institutional. I respect the students who protest against racist behavior––but recognize exactly what you are protesting and as Dr. King and his colleagues did, study your adversary.