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After mob violence at Claremont McKenna College against people trying to hear intellectual Heather Mac Donald speak on criminal justice, the president of the affiliated Pomona College David Oxtoby sent out an email:
Academic Freedom and Free Speech
Published: Friday, April 7, 2017
I am troubled by last night’s events, during which access to a speaking event was blocked and, as a result, community members were unable to attend a lecture at Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum. We remain fully committed to the exercise of free speech and academic freedom at Pomona College, while affirming the value of nondiscrimination and condemning racism in all forms.
Colleges and universities have a unique opportunity and responsibility to bring challenging issues forward for dialogue, even by those with whom we may disagree or whose speech we find offensive. Protest has a legitimate and celebrated place on college campuses. What we cannot support is the act of preventing others from engaging with an invited speaker. Our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth, the collaborative development of knowledge and the betterment of society. Our shared commitment to these values is critical to educating leaders who are prepared to craft solutions to the most complex problems we face.
Seems pretty unobjectionable, right?
Twenty black students published an open letter in response, which does a pretty job of explicating the growing conventional wisdom. There’s not much point in listening to college students for new ideas, but they can be pretty good at parroting back the received wisdom of the current year. Young people tend to be more artless than the more experienced, so they don’t know when to obscure the ideas they’ve picked up in class for a general audience, which can make what they have to say more illuminating about How They Think Now.
Dear David Oxtoby,
… We believe that given your position as President of this institution your voice holds significant weight in campus discourse. That power comes with immense responsibility, especially when you could dictate campus culture, climate, and the alleged mission of this institution.
I visited Claremont, CA 13 years ago to investigate Professor Kerri F. Dunn’s hate hoax in which she tried to frame her white male students for the trashing of her Honda. But a couple of bystanders had observed her messing up her car herself, so she was eventually arrested, but not until after a giant night rally in which students cheered her bravery in standing up to the shadowy forces of hate and West Coast Straussianism stalking the campus.
One thing I remember from reading all the fliers on bulletin boards was how obsessed all the identity interest groups on campus were with discussing whether or not the campus climate was comfortable for them. It was 72 degrees with a 5 mph breeze blowing, so it seemed okay to me.
As President, you are charged with upholding principles of Pomona College. Though this institution as well as many others including this entire country, have been founded upon the oppression and degradation of marginalized bodies
In the W.E.B. Du Bois era, black folk had souls. Now, in the Teh-Genius Coates age, they just have bodies. What happened?
Or this could be a hoax. I don’t know.
, it has a liability to protect the students that it serves. The paradox is that Pomona’s past is rooted in domination of marginalized peoples and communities and the student body has a significant population of students from these backgrounds. Your recent statement reveals where Pomona’s true intentions lie.
Free speech, a right many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions. It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry. Thus, if “our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth,” how does free speech uphold that value? The notion of discourse, when it comes to discussions about experiences and identities, deters the ‘Columbusing’ of established realities and truths (coded as ‘intellectual inquiry’) that the institution promotes. Pomona cannot have its cake and eat it, too. Either you support students of marginalized identities, particularly Black students, or leave us to protect and organize for our communities without the impositions of your patronization, without your binary respectability politics, and without your monolithic perceptions of protest and organizing. In addition, non-Black individuals do not have the right to prescribe how Black people respond to anti-Blackness.
Your statement contains unnuanced views surrounding the academy and a belief in searching for some venerated truth. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny.
The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples. We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora. The idea that we must subject ourselves routinely to the hate speech of fascists who want for us not to exist plays on the same Eurocentric constructs that believed Black people to be impervious to pain and apathetic to the brutal and violent conditions of white supremacy.
The idea that the search for this truth involves entertaining Heather Mac Donald’s hate speech is illogical. If engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist. Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobe, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live. Why are you, and other persons in positions of power at these institutions, protecting a fascist and her hate speech and not students that are directly affected by her presence?
Advocating for white supremacy and giving white supremacists platforms wherefrom their toxic and deadly illogic may be disseminated is condoning violence against Black people. Heather Mac Donald does not have the right to an audience at the Athenaeum, a private venue wherefrom she received compensation. Dictating and condemning non-respectable forms of protest while parroting the phrase that “protest has a celebrated” place on campus is contradictory at best and anti-Black at worst.
This is not an argument rooted in Heather’s loss of “free speech” or academic freedom. She is a well-known public figure, her views are well documented. Rather, our praxis is focused on not allowing her anti-Black platform to be legitimized in front of an audience, which she does not have the right to. Engaging with her, a white supremacist fascist supporter of the police state, is a form of violence.
Protest that doesn’t disrupt the status quo is benign and doesn’t function to overthrow systems of oppression, which is the ultimate goal.
To conclude our statement, we invite you to respond to this email by Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at 4:07pm (since we have more energy to expend on the frivolity of this institution and not Black lives). Also, we demand a revised email sent to the entire student body, faculty, and staff by Thursday, April 20, 2017, apologizing for the previous patronizing statement, enforcing that Pomona College does not tolerate hate speech and speech that projects violence onto the bodies of its marginalized students and oppressed peoples, especially Black students who straddle the intersection of marginalized identities, and explaining the steps the institution will take and the resources it will allocate to protect the aforementioned students.
We also demand that Pomona College and the Claremont University Consortium entities take action against the Claremont Independent editorial staff (http://claremontindependent.com/meet-the-staff/) for its continual perpetuation of hate speech, anti-Blackness, and intimidation toward students of marginalized backgrounds. Provided that the Claremont Independent releases the identity of students involved with this letter and such students begin to receive threats and hate mail, we demand that this institution and its constituents take legal action against members of the Claremont Independent involved with the editing and publication process as well as disciplinary action, such as expulsion on the grounds of endangering the wellbeing of others.
By the way, I have a dull anecdote involving Pomona College president David Oxtoby.
My condo building in Chicago had “The Oxtoby, 1923″ carved above the door. Nobody who lived in it had any idea who or what an Oxtoby was. Since this was before the Internet, I decided to look in the phone book and found there was only one person in Chicago named Oxtoby: David Oxtoby of Hyde Park. So I called him.
A man with a very distinguished speaking voice answered. He thought it was a very good question and gave a short, highly lucid explanation of the etymology of his family name. He said it’s an old English place name derived from the transport of oxen, much like the more famous “Oxford” has to do with where the oxen cross the river. It meant something like “oxen go by.”
When I hung up I assumed he must be a U. of Chicago professor. (He was dean of physical sciences there.)