Community should be proud of its students for speaking out

By Peter Cannavo, Associate Professor of Government

The profiling and killings by police officers or self-appointed vigilantes of unarmed African-Americans and the recent controversy over New York City’s infamous stop-and-frisk policy police profiling of people of color may finally be generating a real national conversation about systematic, ingrained racism in our criminal justice system and society at large.  At Hamilton, the conversation was most recently manifest in a Dec. 1 community-wide meeting and a Dec. 4 protest that blocked traffic on College Hill Road. 

Both events have been criticized by conservatives on this campus and at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, as seen in the publication Enquiry and on social media. The most recent miscarriage of justice in the case of Eric Garner, a man choked to death by those employed by the public “to serve and protect,” seems to have finally provoked outrage across the political spectrum.  I therefore imagine—and hope—that some of these critics are having second thoughts.  Still, several arguments seem to be in play. 

First, in highlighting oppressive structures through protest, Hamilton students are said to be criticizing a power structure from which they benefit and so are acting like spoiled, privileged hypocrites.  Ironically, this argument sounds suspiciously Marxist: one has to act as a member of one’s economic class.  Yes, many Hamilton students are privileged, but that does not mean that one cannot know and critically reflect on one’s privilege, and use one’s resources to change the world. I would argue that the privileged are obligated to address injustices that have given them an unfair advantage. 

And there are many Hamilton students who are not privileged.  They come from groups victimized by systemic racism, racism that does not care where you go to school, where you live, what you earn, who you are as an individual.  Suspicion by police and shopkeepers, prejudice by prospective employers and racial insensitivity or hostility by classmates—including disgusting remarks on Hamilton Secrets—make bigotry a daily, lived experience for people of color, even at elite liberal arts colleges.  Systemic racism also means that government institutions charged with protecting one’s rights can instead threaten one’s existence.  I have heard too many African-American parents describe how they have to preemptively instruct their children on dealing with police officers, lest they end up in jail or worse.  At the community meeting, black and Latino students conveyed a real sense of fear and frustration, a sense that their lives and persons are of secondary worth.  How could they do that otherwise than speaking out?

The second argument seems to be that the protesters should be focusing on their education, and that protest is inappropriate, silly or pointless for college students.  This argument assumes that the college campus is either a monastic hideaway disconnected from societal concerns or little more than a pre-professional training ground.  In fact, the liberal arts tradition puts a premium on critically engaging the world, and I would include political engagement here.  A healthy college campus is a civically active community.  Moreover, public protest and other forms of political engagement are integral to a democratic society and to a complete education.  A protest blocking College Hill Road will not by itself end racial injustice, but political dialogue and change partly emerge from thousands of conversations and actions at the grassroots.  As for those who may be inconvenienced by protesters blocking traffic…well, that’s what protest does—it inconveniences, so as to call attention to injustice.

The third argument is that Dean Nancy Thompson and President Joan Stewart, in issuing statements that implied disagreement with the recent non-indictments of police officers, are acting in a partisan manner.  Again, this cuts to the mission of a college campus.  Colleges and universities are not isolated from society at large.  In fact, as places of knowledge, opportunity and critical reflection, and as the training ground for future leaders, entrepreneurs, professionals, thinkers and artists, they have a role to play in upholding and perfecting the values of a truly free and democratic society.  Moreover, they are privileged institutions that benefit from the largesse of government and/or the private sector, and have an obligation to give back to society. When confronted with an injustice as profound as the serial killing or harassment of African-American citizens by police forces—even when the facts of a specific case may still be at issue—college officials should take a stand.  Indeed, this is one of the defining civil rights issues of our day and it affects all members of the Hamilton community.

I want to add that I am proud of our students who spoke up at the community meeting and who took part in the protest.  The depth of racial injustice in our society is truly depressing and dispiriting, but our students give us some reason to hope.

—Peter Cannavo, Associate Professor of Government

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