Prof. Tiya Miles

Prof. Tiya Miles

by Tiya Miles

Amid the cultural amplification of Donald Trump’s brand of belittling speech, college campuses are wrestling with how to respond to emboldened acts of expressive racism.

During the first weeks of classes here at the University of Michigan, where I am a professor, unknown perpetrators spray-painted an iconic boulder on campus with graphic slurs against Latinos, along with the pro-Trump acronym MAGA (Make America Great Again); others defaced the name tags on the dorm-room doors of three African-American students with pejorative comments, including that most visceral of anti-black insults; and still others posted fliers proclaiming “Free Dylann Roof!” championing the man convicted of the murder of nine black church congregants in Charleston, S.C. When students circulated photos of the defaced name tags via social media and The Michigan Daily newspaper, faculty members and students voiced an urgent need for statements denouncing the hate speech.

I joined with colleagues on our department’s “racial climate task force” to produce a proclamation overnight. As we were editing our statement that evening, another colleague shared the document cranked out by her own program in response to the incident. The next day, the equity and inclusion committee of one of the largest departments in the college issued its statement. Meanwhile, student protesters pressed the university president for an official statement beyond his initial tweet.

Soon after, faculty members across the university proposed a new action group whose mission would include issuing collective statements. All told, university personnel spent hours and days drawing up sentences to proclaim principles that should be obvious. We abhor racism. We believe in the dignity of all human beings. Students of color belong on this campus.

When I learned that a colleague at an East Coast institution had also been preoccupied with a faculty statement on a campus incident that week, I began wondering: In the fight against the alarming threat to our most fundamental values, was this the best use of our time?

There is worth in the expression of shared principles, as well as in the support that stems from collaboration. But beyond the immediate affirmation of restating our moral convictions, I confess my nagging worry that ceaseless statement-writing as an act of protest is sucking us dry — of time, rest, energy, creativity and our place in the public square.

Protest aims to voice dissent and sway public opinion toward the ultimate end of shaping social change, or in our moment, halting social decline. But when formulaic statements are issued by committees of liberal professors, or “the educated elite” — the same voices who always lecture on race — the words have limited impact. Our proliferation of statements online may in fact spur those who enjoy setting off shock waves through race-baiting language and then sitting back and watching the show.

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SOURCE: The New York Times

Tiya Miles is a professor of American culture and history at the University of Michigan and the author of “The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits.”