On Campus, a New Civil Rights Era Rises

Harry Bruinius and Jessica Mendoza, Christian Science Monitor, March 12, 2016

Alex Zhang is not satisfied.

The stained-glass window of a shackled black slave, kneeling at the feet of John Calhoun, no longer looms over the students at the Yale University resident college bearing the American statesman’s name.

But the arched window in the common room is still there celebrating Calhoun, the valedictorian from the class of 1804, former US vice president, and orator who famously proclaimed slavery “a positive good.”

The more appropriate image of what Yale aspires to, Mr. Zhang says, is in the wood-paneled library at the top of the stairs. There, students place roses under a picture of Roosevelt “Rosey” Thompson from Little Rock, Ark., a beloved student and campus activist who died in a car accident during his senior year in 1984.

And if Zhang and the other Yale student activists get their way, the roughly 400 students who live in the neo-Gothic stone residence would no longer be known as “Hounies.” They would be “Roseys.”

“For me, it’s not about erasing history, it’s about how we remember history–and how we make history, today,” says Zhang.

The campaign to rename Calhoun College is still under way. After protests, which roiled the campus last fall, and a massive teach-in at Battell Chapel across the street, the university’s governing body held “listening sessions” at the end of January.

For Zhang, the quest for a more appropriate namesake for the building in which he lives embodies the hopes of students now engaged in a wide-ranging wave of campus protests sweeping across the country on a scale not seen since the 1960s, bringing demands for a new environment within America’s institutions of higher learning.

Indeed, in what might be called a new Millennial zeitgeist, thousands of students in campuses across the nation, from state universities like Missouri and Maryland to highly selective private schools like Amherst, Brandeis, and Brown, have been infused with a restless impatience.

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Minority students and their supporters say that diversity and inclusion aren’t the same thing, and they are no longer willing to settle for a token of the former. Instead of feeling isolated on campus, they want to feel at home.

“They’re really starting to look at this in a very nuanced way, and beyond ideas about diversity and access,” says Ajuan Mance, professor of English at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. “In some ways, they are moving even beyond the notion of equality, and they’re really kind of parsing this new notion of ‘equity,’ and what that would feel like.”

“They are expecting their college experience to ‘feel’ as it would for a white student,” he continues. “They’re looking for that sense of belonging, and that, I would say, that is a very different approach and a very different goal than we’ve seen in previous generations with antiracism movements.”

In the sometimes fractious process playing out on campuses, which so far has cost several faculty members, administrators, and one university president their jobs, the student activists have brought terms such as “safe spaces” and “tokenism” into the mainstream. Going further, they are seeking to broaden the definition of “white supremacy” far beyond skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan to include their view of a society that, they say, overwhelmingly looks at issues from a white male perspective.

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Rejecting hierarchies and “great” figureheads, they say they are willing to “defy the status quo, buck the momentum of centuries of flawed civilization, and move in a different direction,” as Kate Groetzinger, who graduated from Brown University in 2015, wrote in Quartz.

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