Critics of campus activism ignoring root of student demonstrations

By Editorial Board

Students at the University of Missouri, Yale University, Ithaca College and Claremont McKenna College have made national headlines for organizing protests  to address systemic racism and administrative indifference or abuse on their respective campuses.

The students who have organized demonstrations have been heavily criticized by the media. TIME Magazine chided them in a Nov. 17  article titled “The New Millennial ‘Morality’: Heavily Sensitive and Easily Offended.”  The Washington Post’s website featured a Nov. 16 article with the headline “College is the last place that should be a ‘safe space’: A voice of protest against student protests.” In a Nov. 12 editorial about the Mizzou protests, The Chicago Tribune said colleges have created, “an environment in which seemingly fragile young adults are allowed and enabled to avoid troubling thoughts, and the people who are supposed to be educating those students are required to second-guess their every word.”

These headlines flow from a widely held assumption that student-led protests result from raising a generation of overly sensitive, coddled brats who refuse to accept conflicting opinions and need trigger warnings for everything. However, those who criticize the millennial generation for being unable to accept others’ perspectives would like nothing better than to silence students who are speaking out against injustice and racism in their communities. 

In a Nov. 10 column titled “College is not for coddling,” The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus argues that students are too easily affronted on campus when “professors have to worry about showing famous paintings with topless women” because some may find the images degrading. Marcus’ criticism of recent protests at Yale, Missouri and Ithaca College ignores students’ legitimate concerns about racism. 

College campuses have historically been and should continue to be a place where students are introduced to new ideas. The Chicago Tribune’s Nov. 12 editorial concludes by saying, “Students are supposed to come to college to be exposed to challenging ideas, not be protected from them.”

The editorial assumes the root of student protests are hurt feelings and a resistance to others’ opinions. However, students are protesting to have their voices heard and are rallying for the racial equality that has been continually withheld from minority students at universities across the nation.

Glossy university brochures have advertised their campuses as hubs for diversity, inclusivity and equality, yet black students across the nation have felt underrepresented, ignored and discriminated against. When black students at Mizzou tried to reach out to their administrators, they were ignored. When  centuries-old prejudices revealed in culturally-insensitive costumes at Yale were defended by a residential college master, minority students’ concerns were ridiculed. Multiple authority figures at Ithaca College have been accused of making insensitive comments or being physically aggressive toward non-white students. 

Student protesters should be held accountable if their demands are unreasonable or if their tactics are violent or excessively aggressive, but students who exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully and legally assemble should not be attacked for bringing up uncomfortable or marginalized issues that outsiders dismiss as trivial. 

Many Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers participated in civil rights and anti-war protests while attending college. Those protests changed culture and policy.  The protests happening from California to Connecticut are no different. Students who protest injustices in 2015 should not be held to a different standard or be instantly discredited for being college-aged when speaking out against ingrained prejudices in their own communities.