Letter to Yale Alum Magazine
January 19, 2016
I left Yale at the end of my sophomore year in 1955 over the same issues of race and class that students are protesting now. I wouldn’t accept finding in our rooms such items as a poem, for instance, ending “he was a good nigger for burning.” The academics defending free speech represent a middle class professional idea of the university that misses the fullness of what the students protest.
The general academic protests allege the students want to “suppress free speech in the name of equality.” There are other issues equal to free speech that universities cannot avoid. Students of color do live there, right inside the ironically titled ivory tower. As one student said to a professor, “This is our home! Don’t you get it?” So a second parallel issue is civility, suppressing at least some speech so that learning can occur—you can’t learn well if all the time you are angry, afraid, or hurt. I do recall a certain university suppressed fraternity members publicly taunting female students, threatening them about anal sex.
The universities are in the body politic. Writing about Yale in the New York Review of Books, Professor Cole asserts that, based on free speech principles, students shouldn’t have prevented General Westmoreland from speaking on campus during the Vietnam War. On another campus we denied his likes from speaking because they had perfect access to all the media and government all the time; this act was one of the few ways we could “speak” powerfully. The generals were killing us—and we should be polite?
My family is tri-racial, but it is only the African American and Asian members, male and female(university graduates incidentally) who have had police pistols pointed at them. Middle class whites don’t understand the likely personal family history of Yale students of color, and the trauma that racist speech and other acts re-trigger. To those defending ideas in the name of free speech:“Nigger” is not an idea. Neither is blackface. Our realities are so divided. But this is our home! Don’t you get it?
Gerald Gray, Co-Director
Institute for Redress & Recovery
Post Office Box 8053
Berkeley, CA 94707