In a 1967 Harper’s Magazine interview, the prominent African-American novelist Ralph Ellison denounced the commonplace idea that blacks had been permanently “damaged” by slavery, segregation, and racism. Instead, Ellison insisted, blacks’ survival in the face of discrimination and hatred demonstrated their strength and character.
“Any people who could endure all of that brutalization and keep together, who could undergo such dismemberment and resuscitate itself … is obviously more than the sum of its brutalization,” Ellison said. “I am not denying the negative things which have happened to us and which continue to happen, but I am compelled to reject all condescending, narrowly paternalistic interpretations of Negro American life and personality from whatever quarters they come, whether white or Negro.”
Psychic toll and condescension
Ellison would have been appalled by last fall’s protests on American campuses, where the damage thesis returned with a vengeance. From Yale and Ithaca College to the University of Missouri and Claremont McKenna College, black students and their white allies claimed that racist behavior — and administrators’ weak response to it — was harming minorities’ psychological health.
“I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns,” wrote one student at Yale, where a professor’s email about Halloween costumes triggered protests. Other African-Americans noted the psychic toll of overtly racist comments and of “microagressions,” smaller day-to-day slights.
I don’t doubt that African-American students — and other minorities at our colleges — experience routine prejudice and discrimination. We live in a society that is riven by racial stereotypes, distortions, and fantasies. As much as I’d like our campuses to be immune from all of that, I know that they’re not.
But I’m nevertheless troubled by the psychological idioms that our students are using to describe racism, which echo the same paternalism and condescension that Ellison decried. So does the much-heard idea that everyone on campus should “validate” minorities’ experience and yield to their demands, lest we harm their fragile psyches even further.
Starting in the early 1900s, white social scientists — and, eventually, some black ones — insisted that African-American minds had been permanently scarred by racism. Their influence was particularly prominent in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared that segregating black children “generates a feeling of inferiority … that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Yet there was little evidence that black kids in segregated schools felt worse about themselves. In fact, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s famous doll experiments — which were cited in the Brown decision — showed that African-American students in integrated schools were more likely to choose a white rather than a black doll, which the Clarks took as a sign of low black self-esteem. State-sponsored segregation was an abomination, of course, but not because it hurt black minds; it hurt black opportunity, because it shunted many African-Americans into substandard schools.
The problem is structural inequality, not feelings
But those kinds of structural factors often get buried or lost when the talk turns to psychology, which reduces everything to a matter of emotion. If you took away every racist insult at Yale, most blacks in America would still lack the opportunity to go there or to other elite colleges. That’s because of the cruel racial disparities in our society, not because of offensive Halloween costumes (or even, an email about offensive costumes) on our campuses.
And who can measure feelings like anger and humiliation? Unlike structural inequalities, which you can document with data, emotions are by definition subjective. They become trump cards, no matter what other facts are in evidence.
So at Claremont McKenna, a dean resigned following student protests over an email she wrote expressing concerns about non-white students who did not “fit our CMC mold.” It’s absurd to suggest that the dean thought all students should fit a “white” mold; indeed, she wrote the email to challenge precisely that proposition. But the students felt hurt by her choice of words, and that was enough.
It isn’t. If we let ourselves be governed by feelings, we’ll go down a rabbit hole of competing grievances and recriminations. The question will no longer be who is right or wrong — in any objective, demonstrable sense — but who is experiencing the most pain and trauma.
And we’ll also demean minority students, all in the guise of protecting them. As Ralph Ellison reminded us, nearly a half-century ago, the idea of damaged black minds condescends to people who are much stronger than the accumulated slights they have suffered. I’m proud of our minority students, for standing up to the racism that still surrounds them. But I won’t patronize them by “validating” everything that the say, simply because they feel it. Neither should you.
This commentary was originally published in the Los Angeles Times as “Take a cue from Ralph Ellison: Don’t demean minority students by overprotecting them.”
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.”