“This university opened me up. You being here is the reason why I still believe in the community of trust even with a busted head.”

Martese Johnson at last night’s UVA protest.

In the early hours of this morning, University of Virginia junior Martese Johnson was turned away from a college bar due to a suspected fake ID. According to a witness, a police officer grabbed Johnson, a black student, by the arm while he was talking with the bar’s bouncer. “Out of nowhere,” the witness says, the officer and another wrestled Johnson to the ground. By the time he was hauled away, Johnson was clearly injured, his face and the sidewalk spattered with blood.

This afternoon an anonymous letter from “Concerned Black Students” at UVA began to circulate. The letter described the officers’ treatment of Johnson as “animalistic, insensitive, and brute,” saying

His treatment was unprovoked as he did not resist questioning or arrest. In confusion, with blood painting his face and creating a pool on the bricks of the corner, he yelled out for mercy. Though he lay bleeding and crying out, officers continued to hold him to the pavement, pinning him down, twisting his arm, with knees to his back until he was handcuffed.

As word of the incident circulated on campus and the internet, pressure grew for the university to make a statement. Approximately two hours ago, just after six o’clock, UVA made two:

Two statements, two linked tweets. Let’s see what they say.

The first statement, from UVA President Teresa Sullivan, expresses “deep concern about an incident that occurred.” As Sullivan puts it, “one of our students was injured while Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents were attempting to take him into custody.” She is, she says, asking for “an independent investigation,” though she cautions that “we have not yet clarified all of the details surrounding this event.” Neither Johnson’s race nor the possibility that he may have been a victim of police brutality are mentioned.

The second statement is signed by two black professor-administrators at UVA — Vice President for Diversity and Equity Marcus Martin and Dean of African-American Affairs Maurice Apprey. Here’s how they begin:

“We are outraged by the brutality against a University of Virginia undergraduate student that occurred in the early hours Wednesday, March 18, 2015. This African American male student was injured on the Corner, after being stopped by Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) officers. His head was slammed into the hard pavement with excessive force… We view the nature of this assault as highly unusual and appalling based on the information we have received.”

It goes on for another two paragraphs, but you get the gist.

Taken independently, each of these two statements is arguably reasonable. Released in tandem, they are truly bizarre, creating a spectacle in which UVA’s white president, styling herself the voice of moderation, reason, and detachment, outsources the institution’s expression of outrage to two black administrators.

It should not fall to UVA’s Vice President for Diversity and Equity and Dean of African-American Affairs to express anger over the police beating of a black student while their white boss preserves her “objectivity” and hedges her bets. If Sullivan, and UVA, are appalled by the violence done to Martese Johnson, let them say so. If they are not, or if they are unable to declare their views, let them say that. Because as things stand now, it looks very much like President Sullivan wants the credit for institutional bravery that Professors Martin and Apprey have provided her without the risk of attack that they are being forced to carry alone.

This is the sixth entry in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. You can learn more about the series, read the other questions, and ask your own here.

Given the fact that proportion of the population (of the United States) that is transgender appears to be 0.5% or lower (http://53eig.ht/1zrIXrs), why does this issue appear to be so dominant within the progressive movement? (Or is that a mistaken impression?)

This question just came in last night, and there are three ahead of it in the queue, so I’ll start by apologizing to the folks I’m neglecting by answering it. But I suspect that it was inspired either by yesterday’s Katha Pollitt essay critiquing trans-inclusive language in the reproductive rights movement or by my subtweeting of that essay that afternoon, so in the interest of timeliness I’m bumping it up.

Okay. So let’s start by saying that we don’t actually know how many trans people there are in the United States. (As indicated by the title of the article you link: Why We Don’t Know the Size of the Transgender Population.) This is true for a bunch of reasons: Trans visibility is still a very recent and contingent thing. The term is fluid enough that it defies simple categorization. Some folks who others would describe as trans may not identify that way, for any of a number of reasons, and vice versa. There are huge risks to declaring oneself to be trans. And so on and on.

Given all that, I’d hesitate to declare 0.5% the upper limit of the trans population, but let’s say that’s the number. Half a percent of the population of the US is still 1.6 million people. That’s more people than live in Philadelphia. Or Dallas. Or Maine. To put it another way, it’s more people than were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

It’s a lot of people, is what I’m saying.

But yes, I take your point. Half a percent of something is a small fraction of that thing. So why so much attention? And — maybe more to the point — why so much attention all of a sudden?

I’ve got a few thoughts on this. Before I start, though, let’s be clear on what we’re talking about. Because while I definitely see the phenomenon you’re seeing, to say that trans issues are “dominant within the progressive movement” strikes me as inaccurate. There are corners of the movement — the corners I assume you have in mind, and the corners I’ll be discussing for the rest of this piece — in which trans issues are increasingly a big deal, but those corners aren’t the whole movement, however defined.

So. Caveat caveat caveat. Back to the question: Why so much attention?

Well, let’s go back over the demographics again. If half a percent of the US population self-identifies as trans, those numbers are likely going to skew much higher among the young, among liberal-left people, and within activist communities.

Assuming that people who identify as trans aren’t evenly distributed throughout the country, they’ll be significantly overrepresented in various progressive circles. And it certainly seems reasonable that progressive cis folks’ priorities would reflect those numbers rather than stats for society as a whole. Speaking personally, I never met someone who I knew to be trans until after I graduated from college. Today? I know lots of folks who are trans, count several among my good friends, and assume that trans people will likely be represented in pretty much any gathering of any significant size that I participate in. It’s not surprising, just on that basis alone, that trans issues are more on my radar than they were back then.

But honestly I don’t think that’s even the central issue. To my mind, there are three other huge factors in why trans issues have the profile they do in the places they do.

First, there’s the fact that trans rights are disputed, even within the progressive community. They’re a focus of discussion because they’re a focus of debate. If someone sees themselves as liberal or left, you can predict from that what they believe on a lot of issues, but trans rights aren’t among them. So there’s more attention because there’s more contention.

Second, and growing out of the above, trans people are embattled. The conditions in which many trans people live are staggeringly challenging. In one sample of more than six thousand, nearly half of all trans people had attempted suicide. More than half had been rejected by family. More than half had experienced harassment at work. Most had experienced physical or sexual violence, and more than two-thirds had been homeless. These numbers are catastrophic, and they compel our attention.

Finally, we’re in a moment of transition as well as crisis. Big fights are being fought right now, and those fights will have big consequences. Laws are being drafted and voted on. Universities and other institutions are setting policies for the future. Priorities and agendas and funding models are being hashed out. Attitudes are being challenged.

Stuff is happening. Folks are saddling up.

And there’s something else going on, too. (I know, I said “finally” in the last graf. Call this a postscript.) We’re grappling, as a culture, with issues of gender in ways we’ve never grappled with them before. Expectations and party lines and ways of thinking are emerging. Attitudes are shifting under our feet. That’s exhilarating for some, horrifying for others, confusing for many more. But compelling, in one way or another, for a really wide swath of people.

And my own intuitive sense is that the current moment is still really fluid — that we’re in the early stages of a transformation in attitudes that’s considerably bigger and more radical than what we’ve experienced so far. I’m not quite sure what I mean by that, even, and not certain at all what this next phase is going to look like, but a lot of the thrashing about that we’re seeing at the moment feels to me like the death throes of a worldview whose successor hasn’t quite been articulated yet.

We’re thinking about all this stuff in new ways, is what I’m saying, and we’re not finished with the newness yet. It’s not surprising that so many of us are weighing in.

Earlier this afternoon the University of Oklahoma announced via Twitter that two students who had played “a leadership role in the singing of a racist chant” at a fraternity event had been expelled from OU by university president David Boren. This unilateral move struck me (and others) as surprising, and as a likely violation of the students’ rights to due process under university regulations.

It turns out we were right to be skeptical. The students haven’t been expelled.

Although the press release attached to his tweet declared that Boren had “expelled” the students, the tweet itself said only that he had “acted to expel” them, and an “expulsion” letter was even less definitive.

In a copy of one student’s expulsion letter obtained by Gawker, Boren declared not that the student had been expelled but that he “should be” and “will be.” If the student wishes to fight Boren’s decision to expel him, the letter indicates, he must notify the university by the end of this week, at which point a meeting will be scheduled on the subject. (Gawker got the letter from a tweet, by the way, but it’s since been published by Oklahoma media sources. It appears to be legit.)

It’s not clear how the process Boren describes relates to the procedures established in OU’s Student Rights and Responsibilities Code — the deadlines and schedule laid out in the letter don’t appear to conform to those set down in the code. But it is clear from the letter that Boren has not unilaterally expelled the students, and that if they do not choose to withdraw from the university their case will be handled according to some sort of formal disciplinary process.

Update | I’ve got a hunch about what happened here.

Boren appears not to be claiming the power to expel the students unilaterally. Instead, what he seems to be doing is pressuring them to withdraw from OU. The “should be” and “will be” language could be read as rhetorical flourishes, but I think something else may be going on.

Eugene Volokh and others have argued that the students’ chant was protected under the First Amendment and that no expulsion order would stand up in court. Given that, the best-case scenario from the university’s perspective would be for the students to drop out voluntarily. If the world can be convinced they were expelled, so much the better.

To put it another way, Boren has no power to expel the students, but if they don’t object to being expelled that doesn’t matter. If he says “you’re expelled unless you file a letter by Friday” and they don’t fire a letter by Friday, they’ve essentially been expelled by mutual consent.

We’ll know by the end of the week whether the students intend to contest the expulsion proceedings. If they do, things could get awkward for Boren.

Second Update | Here’s something interesting. While an earlier version of the post claimed that Boren doesn’t have the power to expel students on his own, that may have been a hasty conclusion.

While the student code does not provide for unilateral expulsion by the president, the OU regulations for complaints under the university’s nondiscrimination policy provide that “the University Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students or other appropriate persons in authority may take immediate administrative or disciplinary action deemed necessary for the welfare or safety of the University community.”

Complaints about violations of the nondiscrimination policy are handled by the OU Equal Opportunity Officer. In his letter today, Boren directed the students facing expulsion to notify the EOO if they wished to contest the decision. Given all that, and given the fact that Boren’s letter charged the students with creating a “hostile educational environment” — a term of art in nondiscrimination law — it looks like we know what OU’s legal/disciplinary strategy is.

Third Update | Parker Rice, the first of the SAE students publicly identified, has withdrawn from OU. No word yet on whether Levi Petitt, the other student facing expulsion, intends to contest the decision.

This is the fifth entry in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. You can learn more about the series, read the other questions, and ask your own here.

Via ask.fm:

Is it blackface to use the black emojis if you are white?

Okay, so I’ve been holding off on answering this one. It was one of the first to come in, and the only one I’ve gotten so far that made me suspect my leg was being pulled. I thought about just dumping it, but ultimately I guess I’d rather err on the side of looking like a doofus — if I’m encouraging other people to step outside their comfort zone and take a risk, I should be willing to do the same myself. What the hell. Here goes.

In general, if you’re worried about causing offense, there are two things to bear in mind: intent and reception. “Is this a messed up idea?” and “Are people going to respond badly to this?” are related questions, but not identical.

So let’s look at the two issues separately.

I’m not a hundred percent sure what you have in mind when you refer to “using” the black emojis. (Feel free to tell me in comments or on Ask.) If you just mean using them as you would the regular ones, the relevant intent question would be why you were doing it, and I’m not coming up with an obvious answer to that hypothetical. If you mean using them to illustrate differences in color or race between real or fictional people, I can see that being weird or not-weird, depending. If you’re picturing creating some sort of a black “character,” that’s blackface and it’s gross and you shouldn’t do it.

My answer on reception is simpler: If you’re worried you might offend someone by doing something, that’s a reason not to do it. It may not be sufficient reason not to do it, but it’s a reason. Generally speaking, we all like to avoid being obnoxious when we can.

Ultimately, I can’t say whether what you’re imagining is blackface because I don’t know what you’re imagining. All I can tell you is that if I had the idea to do something and I wasn’t sure whether it was blackface or not, I’d take that as an indication that (1) it might be, and (2) I probably wouldn’t be the only one wondering.

About This Blog

StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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