Of Slavery and Swastikas

Economist, January 2, 2016

Wishing for his death “in a fiery car accident” was only one of many messages directed at Chuck Henson when he became the University of Missouri’s new interim vice-chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity. Mr Henson does not follow social media, but his wife does. Recently she agreed to stop reading the death threats and other missives intended for her husband, and instead to help him focus on his task, which is to end the racial turmoil that has made the university the centre of a nationwide campus protest movement over race for the past three months.

“We have a unique history and we have a unique problem,” says Mr Henson, a law professor. {snip} Anger boiled over in November, leading to the resignation of Tim Wolfe, the university’s president and chancellor, after weeks of protests by students outraged by what they saw as Mr Wolfe’s failure to deal with racism on campus.

Offensive incidents last year included a swastika smeared with faeces on the wall of a dormitory bathroom and racial epithets hurled at black students, including Payton Head, the president of the student body. {snip}

Mr Wolfe was replaced as president of the university, temporarily, by Michael Middleton, a long-standing member of the law faculty and graduate of the university, who founded its Legion of Black Collegians in 1968. Mr Middleton promises to meet all the demands of “Concerned Student 1950”, the group of black students leading the protests, which include the creation of a “comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum” and an increase in black members of faculty to 10% from around 3%. {snip}

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The backlash against the changes at Mizzou is likely to continue, led by self-styled defenders of the First Amendment (which protects free speech). Yet the First Amendment does not give people a free pass to go round saying hateful things, points out Mr Henson. To help students and faculty realise this, Mizzou has developed a new guide to “inclusive terminology” which ensures a healthy level of respect for all minority groups. It includes terms such as “adultism” (prejudice against the young), “minoritised” (when under-represented groups are made to feel inferior) and intersextionality (obscure). Some will see this stuff as movement in the right direction. But it is also likely to increase the ire of those who watched the protests and thought they saw a group of privileged college students complaining about how terrible their lot is.

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