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The Microaggression Farce

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The Microaggression Farce

The latest campus fad, which sees racism everywhere, will create a new generation of permanent victims. Autumn 2014
The Social Order
Politics and law
Students occupy a UCLA admissions office, demanding an increase in minority students.

In November 2013, two dozen graduate students at the University of California at Los Angeles marched into an education class and announced a protest against its “hostile and unsafe climate for Scholars of Color.” The students had been victimized, they claimed, by racial “microaggression”—the hottest concept on campuses today, used to call out racism otherwise invisible to the naked eye. UCLA’s response to the sit-in was a travesty of justice. The education school sacrificed the reputation of a beloved and respected professor in order to placate a group of ignorant students making a specious charge of racism.

The pattern would repeat itself twice more at UCLA that fall: students would allege that they were victimized by racism, and the administration, rather than correcting the students’ misapprehension, penitently acceded to it. Colleges across the country behave no differently. As student claims of racial and gender mistreatment grow ever more unmoored from reality, campus grown-ups have abdicated their responsibility to cultivate an adult sense of perspective and common sense in their students. Instead, they are creating what tort law calls “eggshell plaintiffs”—preternaturally fragile individuals injured by the slightest collisions with life. The consequences will affect us for years to come.

UCLA education professor emeritus Val Rust was involved in multiculturalism long before the concept even existed. A pioneer in the field of comparative education, which studies different countries’ educational systems, Rust has spent over four decades mentoring students from around the world and assisting in international development efforts. He has received virtually every honor awarded by the Society of Comparative and International Education. His former students are unanimous in their praise for his compassion and integrity. “He’s been an amazing mentor to me,” says Cathryn Dhanatya, an assistant dean for research at the USC Rossiter School of Education. “I’ve never experienced anything remotely malicious or negative in terms of how he views students and how he wants them to succeed.” Rosalind Raby, director of the California Colleges for International Education, says that Rust pushes you to “reexamine your own thought processes. There is no one more sensitive to the issue of cross-cultural understanding.” A spring 2013 newsletter from UCLA’s ed school celebrated Rust’s career and featured numerous testimonials about his warmth and support for students.

It was therefore ironic that Rust’s graduate-level class in dissertation preparation was the target of student protest just a few months later—ironic, but in the fevered context of the UCLA education school, not surprising. The school, which trumpets its “social-justice” mission at every opportunity, is a cauldron of simmering racial tensions. Students specializing in “critical race theory”—an intellectually vacuous import from law schools—play the race card incessantly against their fellow students and their professors, leading to an atmosphere of nervous self-censorship. Foreign students are particularly shell-shocked by the school’s climate. “The Asians are just terrified,” says a recent graduate. “They walk into this hyper-racialized environment and have no idea what’s going on. Their attitude in class is: ‘I don’t want to talk. Please don’t make me talk!’ ”

Val Rust’s dissertation-prep class had devolved into a highly charged arena of competing victim ideologies, impenetrable to anyone outside academia. For example: Were white feminists who use “standpoint theory”—a feminist critique of allegedly male-centered epistemology—illegitimately appropriating the “testimonial” genre used by Chicana feminists to narrate their stories of oppression? Rust took little part in these “methodological” disputes—if one can describe “Chicana testimonials” as a scholarly “method”—but let the more theoretically up-to-date students hash it out among themselves. Other debates centered on the political implications of punctuation. Rust had changed a student’s capitalization of the word “indigenous” in her dissertation proposal to the lowercase, thus allegedly showing disrespect for the student’s ideological point of view. Tensions arose over Rust’s insistence that students use the more academic Chicago Manual of Style for citation format; some students felt that the less formal American Psychological Association conventions better reflected their political commitments. During one of these heated discussions, Rust reached over and patted the arm of the class’s most vociferous critical race–theory advocate to try to calm him down—a gesture typical of the physically demonstrative Rust, who is prone to hugs. The student, Kenjus Watson, dramatically jerked his arm away, as a burst of nervous energy coursed through the room.

After each of these debates, the self-professed “students of color” exchanged e-mails about their treatment by the class’s “whites.” (Asians are not considered “persons of color” on college campuses, presumably because they are academically successful.) Finally, on November 14, 2013, the class’s five “students of color,” accompanied by “students of color” from elsewhere at UCLA, as well as by reporters and photographers from the campus newspaper, made their surprise entrance into Rust’s class as a “collective statement of Resistance by Graduate Students of Color.” The protesters formed a circle around Rust and the remaining five students (one American, two Europeans, and two Asian nationals) and read aloud their “Day of Action Statement.” That statement suggests that Rust’s modest efforts to help students with their writing faced obstacles too great to overcome.

The Day of Action Statement contains hardly a sentence without some awkwardness of grammar or usage. “The silence on the repeated assailment of our work by white female colleagues, our professor’s failure to acknowledge and assuage the escalating hostility directed at the only Male of Color in this cohort, as well as his own repeated questioning of this male’s intellectual and professional decisions all support a complacency in this hostile and unsafe climate for Scholars of Color,” the manifesto asserts. The Day of Action Statement denounces the class’s “racial microaggressions,” which it claims have been “directed at our epistemologies, our intellectual rigor and to a misconstruction of the methodological genealogies that we have shared with the class.” (Though it has only caught on in recent years, the “microaggression” concept was first coined in the 1970s by a black psychiatrist.) Reaching its peroration, the statement unleashes a few more linguistic head-scratchers: “It is, at its most benign, disingenuous to the next generations of Scholars of Color to not seek material and systematic changes in this department. It is a toxic, unsafe and intellectually stifling environment at its current worse.”

The Ph.D. candidates who authored this statement are at the threshold of a career in academia—and not just any career in academia but one teaching teachers. The Day of Action Statement should have been a wake-up call to the school’s authorities—not about UCLA’s “hostile racial climate” but about their own pedagogical failure to prepare students for scholarly writing and advising. Rust is hardly the first professor to be criticized for his efforts to help students write. “Asking for better grammar is inflammatory in the school,” says an occasional T.A. “You have to give an A or you’re a racist.”

The authorities chose a different course.

As word of the sit-in spread in the press and on the Internet, the administration began its sacrifice of Rust. Dean Marcelo Suárez-Orozco sent around a pandering e-mail to faculty and students, announcing that he had become “aware of the last of a series of troubling racial climate incidents at UCLA, most recently associated with [Rust’s class]”—thus conferring legitimacy on the preposterous claim that there was anything racially “troubling” about Rust’s management of his class. Suárez-Orozco went on: “Rest assured I take this extremely seriously. I humbly dedicate myself to listening and to learning from this experience. As a community, we will work towards just, equitable, and lasting solutions. Together, we shall heal.”

Of course, the very idea of taking “this” “extremely seriously” presupposes that there was something to be taken seriously and solved, as opposed to a mere outburst of narcissistic victimhood. The administration announced that Rust would not teach the remainder of the class by himself but would be joined by three other professors, one of whom, Daniel Solórzano, was the school’s leading proponent of microaggression theory and critical race theory. This reorganization implicitly confirmed the charge that Rust was unfit to supervise “graduate students of color.”

Unsatisfied with the administration’s response, the protesters posted an online petition riddled with a new crop of grammatical puzzlers. “Students consistently report hostile classroom environments in which the effects of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other forms of institutionalized oppression have manifested within the department and deride our intellectual capacity, methodological rigor, and ideological legitimacy,” limped one typical sentence.

A few weeks later, a town hall convened to discuss the Day of Action’s charge of a “hostile and toxic environment for students of Color.” Professor Solórzano presented his typology of microaggressions to explain the school’s racial tensions. Protest organizer Kenjus Watson read a long bill of particulars justifying the Day of Action. Another black student argued that no reconciliation in the school was possible because Rust had not apologized for his transgressions. Several of Rust’s faculty colleagues in the Division of Social Sciences and Comparative Education attended; none publicly defended him.

After the meeting, Rust approached the student who had berated him for not seeking forgiveness and tried to engage him in conversation. Ever naive, Rust again reached out to touch his interlocutor. The student, a large and robust young man, erupted in anger and eventually filed a criminal charge of battery against the 79-year-old professor. Rust’s employers presented him with a choice: if he agreed to stay off the education-school premises for the remainder of the academic year, they would not pursue disciplinary charges against him. The administration then sent around a letter to students, alerting them that the school would be less dangerous—for a while, at least—with Rust out of the picture.

The dean and his assistants were just warming up. They formed a committee charged with “examining all aspects of the [school’s] operations and culture from the perspective of race and ethnic relations.” Oblivious to conflicts of interest, they appointed Watson, leader of the anti-Rust protests, as “graduate student researcher” for the committee. None of the allegedly racially “hostile” students who had been penned inside the protest circle was invited to participate. Solórzano would chair the committee.

The committee’s final report unctuously thanked the student protesters for their brave stand against racial oppression: “Recently, a group of our students have courageously challenged us to reflect on how we enact [the school’s social-justice] mission in our own community. We owe these students a debt of thanks,” opened the report. Watson, in other words, was thanking himself. To laud the students as courageous is absurd: they faced no prospect of negative repercussions from their protest.

The committee said nothing about the students’ embarrassing writing skills, perhaps because it had almost as much difficulty as they did crafting clear prose: “We welcome the opportunity to step up to the leadership role that accompanies our social justice mission to work on remedying the unsafe and not brave learning spaces within our community and pledge to improving our pedagogical practices and classrooms so that all our students feel their work is valued,” the committee announced.

If UCLA were serious about preparing its graduate students for a life of scholarship, it would have rebutted the protesters’ assumption that their work should be off-limits to questions. (According to the Day of Action Statement, “the barrage of questions by white colleagues and the grammar ‘lessons’ by the professor have contributed to a hostile class climate.”) Intellectual debate is essential to the academic endeavor and in no way constitutes a “microaggression,” the administration should have said. There is no likelihood that the class discussions were motivated by racism; virtually every American student in the education school embraces its “social-justice” mission. A graduate student who defended Rust in the UCLA student newspaper opened her op-ed on the dispute with the observation that racism “is deeply embedded within the institutions that make up UCLA” before denouncing Rust’s “unjust . . . demoniz[ation] as a symbol of white male oppression.”

But the most stunning failure of the committee’s report and of the school’s leadership more generally is the unwillingness to make any public effort to rebut the students’ calumny against Rust. Surely Rust’s colleagues know that he lacks any trace of racial condescension or “hostility.” As one of his students put it: “He is pure of heart.” No more poisonous charge can be lodged against someone in today’s university than racial bias or insensitivity. Yet the education-school administration sacrificed Rust’s honor and feelings, not to mention the truth, to avoid further inflaming the protesters. This is not just a moral lapse; it is also an educational one. Rust’s “students of color” profoundly misinterpreted the dynamics of the classroom, seeing racial animus where none existed. Not only did the adults at the education school not correct the students’ misperceptions; they celebrated those students as heroes. The administration and complicit faculty have thus all but guaranteed that the protesters and their supporters will go through life lodging similar complaints against equally phantom racism and expecting a similarly laudatory response.

I asked Dean Suárez-Orozco whether his administration believes that Rust was an appropriate target of a racial protest; he refused to answer, citing through a spokesman “personnel privacy rights.” In light of the open humiliation of Rust, as well as the administration and committee’s existing public comments, it is cowardly to hide behind alleged “privacy rights” to avoid answering questions about a painfully public affair.

The closest that the administration came to acknowledging the possibility that the protesters had misconstrued the classroom dynamics was a brief passage in the Race and Ethnic Relations Committee report. According to the committee, there exists no right or wrong interpretation in alleged racial incidents—just different perspectives, each equally valid: “Any incident or experience shared by a community will always generate multiple narratives, each of which has the right to be respected and validated as an experience of events. No single version of any incident is a full explanation of a complex situation, particularly one that carries the heavy weight of issues emotionally charged by historical legacies of racism, power imbalance, and systematic abuses that often go unrecognized and without articulation in our culture.” Though the committee gave no indication that it had considered, much less “validated,” a narrative about Rust’s class that discounted the claim of racism, implicit in its invocation of “issues emotionally charged by historical legacies of racism” is the hint that there may be another side to the protesters’ portrayal of Rust’s class. That’s cold comfort, though, to Rust or anyone who cares about the truth. In fact, the committee’s seemingly evenhanded gesture of epistemological inclusiveness is even more of a moral dodge than it first appears. It lets the committee sidestep its responsibility of deciding whether the racial accusation was justified; in practice, the racism charge will always trump a denial of racism. Once such a charge is launched, every campus administration will act as if it were true and will introduce a host of measures to counteract the alleged bias.

The committee concluded by congratulating itself and the school’s leadership for identifying “the racial climate challenges that emerged in the Fall Quarter and mov[ing] quickly and decisively to address them.” The authors lacked the integrity to name these “racial climate challenges” or to specify how the school addressed them, but presumably the administration did so by cordoning off the school from Rust’s dangerous presence. The report goes on to recommend the bureaucracy inflation that is every school’s default response to racial protest: in this case, a new associate dean for equity and diversity, a permanent committee on equity and diversity, diversity training for the faculty, and a beefed-up grievance process for lodging complaints of racial discrimination, among other measures lifted directly from the protesters’ petition.

Kenjus Watson, the “only Male of Color” in Rust’s class and lead protest organizer, went on to codirect the “Intergroup dialogue program” at Los Angeles’s Occidental College the following summer. In fact, Watson has been a font of “Intergroup dialogue” across the country, the latest content-free academic fraud. “Intergroup dialogue” courses, in the words of the Occidental catalog, seek to “enhance students’ knowledge, understanding, and awareness about diversity and social justice while nurturing the development of constructive intergroup relations and leadership skills”—all for academic credit. Watson has taught “Intergroup dialogue” courses at Penn State, St. Louis University, and the University of Michigan, covering such topics as “Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Black Masculinity.” Arguably, someone who felt so offended by Rust’s arm pat—“this singling out of this Male Student of Color reached an inexcusable culmination when the professor physically shook this student’s arm in a questionable, patronizing and facetious effort to remind student of the importance of dialogue,” proclaimed the Day of Action Statement—is not the ideal candidate for promoting “constructive intergroup relations,” even if that were a legitimate academic field. But Watson has undoubtedly spread his version of “dialogue” and “social justice” to numerous receptive “Students of Color,” who will have learned to see everything through a lens of racial offense.

Barely a week after the Day of Action at the education school, a different microaggression incident convulsed UCLA’s law school. Once again, the administration failed to push back against clearly ungrounded student claims of racial injury.

UCLA law professor Richard Sander taught an enthusiastic group of students in his first-year property class in the fall of 2013. Building on that class spirit, he proposed a softball match between his students and the other first-year property-law section. Sander’s students wanted to make team T-shirts and came up with a design featuring the logo #teamsander and a picture of their professor holding a baseball bat, embellished with such property terms as “replevin” and “trover.” A few days before the tournament, half of Sander’s students wore their T-shirts to class. An e-mail storm immediately broke out among the first-year black students, charging Sander’s class with microaggression.

Sander, you see, is the progenitor of an empirically sophisticated critique of affirmative action known as mismatch theory, which holds that racial preferences in academic admissions harm their purported beneficiaries by placing them in schools for which they are inadequately prepared. The work has not endeared Sander to the academic establishment, deeply committed as it is to its role as the dispenser of racial noblesse oblige. And UCLA’s minority law students saw in the Team Sander T-shirts a racial slight against them. In the words of the school’s Diversity Action Committee on Campus Climate, the students “felt triggered” by the shirt—an au courant phrase of campus victimology meaning that the shirt had engendered traumatic recollections of other racist abuse that the students had experienced. The shirts were a manifestation of “white privilege,” according to a Facebook commenter, consistent with “racist/classist/sexist comments made inside and outside of the classroom.”

This racial interpretation was wholly fanciful. Affirmative action had never come up during Sander’s class; some of his students were undoubtedly not even aware of mismatch theory. Their choice of team name was solely an expression of gratitude for his property-law instruction. Nevertheless, the first-year black students called a meeting for the next day to discuss their response to the alleged microaggression. Several of Sander’s property-law students attended, in the hope of rebutting the idea that the T-shirt was a political statement; some of the minority students objected to their presence, and the meeting devolved into a shouting match.

Sander’s students left the T-shirts at home for the softball game, but tensions remained high. Several students notified the legal gossip blog Above the Law about the T-shirt offense, and the blog gleefully ran a series of posts about “racism” at the UCLA law school. One post included an anonymous claim from a black student that the law school no longer assigns blacks to Sander’s first-year property classes (there were none that year in his section) because taking a class taught by an opponent of racial preferences is too “awful.” The anonymous source claimed that black students wouldn’t feel comfortable seeking additional help from Sander for fear of “contributing to his research” on mismatch theory by admitting that they didn’t understand a concept. This is an understandable, if unfortunate, reaction to Sander’s work, but it’s hard to see any way around the dilemma. Sander pursues his research on racial preferences in good faith and goes where the facts lead him. He happens to be a committed liberal, passionately dedicated to racial equality, who has come to the conclusion that affirmative action impedes black academic progress. No one has ever alleged that he treats all his students with anything other than respect. In any case, the creation of the Team Sander T-shirts had nothing to do with mismatch theory.

The day after the softball game, which the first-year black students and a few others in the opposing property-law section boycotted, law school dean Rachel Moran sent an e-mail to the first-year class about the T-shirt incident and the “hurt feelings” that it had caused. Rather than rebutting the idea that the T-shirts were racially disrespectful, Moran took refuge in epistemological agnosticism. She urged students to be “respectful of one another’s feelings and open to understanding different points of view.” In theory, this is anodyne advice, but unless Moran believed that the T-shirts were justifiably viewed as a racial insult, she should have corrected the students’ misperception and helped them gain some perspective on what constitutes a true racial offense. Moreover, if T-shirts with Sander’s name and picture could legitimately be seen as an attack on black students, then Sander’s very presence on campus must also constitute an attack on black students. Moran let that possibility hang out there.

The rest of Moran’s e-mail signaled where her heart lay. She promised that her administration would “facilitate constructive conversations in safe spaces for all of our students.” This melodramatic “safety” rhetoric, deployed so promiscuously during the Rust incident (and constantly thrown around by campus feminists as well), lies at the heart of academic victimology. Any college bureaucrat who uses it has cast his lot with the fiction that his college is dangerous for minority and female students outside a few places of sanctuary.

Meanwhile, Sander asked a dean if the school had, in fact, stopped assigning black students to his class, as Above the Law had reported. The school has no such policy, the dean told him. Another T-shirt-inspired rumor held that Sander somehow penalizes blacks in grading, even though grading throughout the school is blind to students’ identities. To the contrary, Sander learned, his first-year black students do better in his classes than in their other classes, earning a B on average, compared with a B-minus elsewhere. Sander asked the administration to put those facts out there to rebut the various falsehoods; it declined to do so, for fear of stirring up more protest.

Racial agitation continued into the new semester. The Black Law Students Association held a demonstration in February 2014, protesting the fact that there were only 33 blacks out of 1,100 students at the law school—apparently, the law school is to blame for the small pool of black college graduates nationwide and in California with remotely competitive LSAT scores and grades. The school twists itself into knots trying to admit as many black students as possible without violating California’s ban on racial preferences so flagrantly that even the press takes notice. In fact, both UCLA and UC Berkeley law schools admit blacks at a 400 percent higher rate than can be explained on race-neutral grounds, according to a recent paper by a pro-affirmative-action economist at Berkeley, Danny Yagan. No matter. The protesters wore T-shirts with 33/1,100 on them and made a YouTube video titled “33,” containing personal testimonials about the stress of being one of UCLA’s black law students: “It’s so far from being a safe space that it would be better for my mental health if I stayed at home,” said one girl. Other students complained that they were looked to in class to represent the black perspective—precisely the role that the “diversity” rationale for racial preferences assigns to minority students.

At the same time, a string of robberies near UCLA had prompted a discussion on the law school’s student Facebook page about self-defense tips. The school’s most vociferous critic of alleged white privilege and institutional racism, first-year student Alexis Morgan Gardner, argued that the robbery perpetrators were “clearly victims to life circumstances (and probably poverty) as well” and that the discussion should address the root causes of crime, not just “reactionary” measures. After a few other students responded that a “root causes” discussion, however important, was secondary to the security issue, Gardner posted: “I FEAR FOR MY SAFETY MORE HERE (at the law school) in this hostile space where the future ‘leaders of America’ are so intolerable to alternative perspectives” than she does in her own home, with “extremely higher” crime statistics. “It sounds like a lynch mob in the making,” she added.

Several days later, a male student unknown to Gardner accosted her on a school elevator and asked her how she could feel at greater risk of physical harm at the law school than in a high-crime area. Gardner wrote about the encounter on Facebook as an example of why she felt unsafe at the school, adding a string of other purported abuses that suggest a paranoid streak: “people . . . publicly mock, disrespect, and dismiss me when it appeals to the majority. . . . everyone knows exactly who I am and stares at me when I walk through the halls because essentially, I am a fly in the milk. . . . there’s some deep-seated abhorrence and intolerance of me among the masses, but they hide it in their microaggressions and behind their keyboards.”

A day later, Gardner published on Facebook an anonymous hate-mail note that she said had been left in her mailbox: “stop being such a sensitive [n—r].” Gardner added: “And to all those of you who disrespectfully took part in that fb thread [presumably the one about crime and root causes], who liked comments and encouraged our classmates detestable behavior (on and off of fb), YOU actively contributed to this racially hostile campus environment. . . . I hope you are all proud of yourselves.”

The school immediately went into crisis mode, outstripping its T-shirt response. After the Black Law Students Association presented Dean Moran with a petition denouncing the school’s “lack of institutional commitment to student of color presence and safety,” she wrote to the student body that she was “personally sensitive to and aware of the kinds of challenges faced by students of color, in and out of the classroom.” In a breathtakingly condescending gesture, Moran announced that the school would be holding seminars “to help students with cross-cultural competency and communication skills,” an agenda later expanded to include “practical strategies for becoming a better ally.” This increasingly popular “ally” mission may come as a surprise to the average student, who thought that he had enrolled in college to get an education, not to be enlisted in the allegedly titanic struggle of black and Hispanic students against hostile academic forces. The school encouraged incoming first-year law students in the fall of 2014 to be tested for unconscious bias, for which they could receive counseling at the school’s expense. The faculty needed an antiracism tune-up as well, in Dean Moran’s eyes: the school would offer a faculty workshop on the neuroscience of unconscious bias and its impact on legal education, followed by workshops on “facilitating classroom discussions about race, diversity, and discrimination.” Of course, the administration trotted out the usual parade of additional diversity initiatives, including a new Director of Student Learning Environment and Academic Affairs, tasked with “promoting and supporting diversity,” and a new grievance procedure for student-bias complaints.

The chance that the hate-mail note was real is far lower than the chance that it was a hoax, to apply David Hume’s test for miracles. UCLA’s law students, like law students everywhere, are almost obsessively career-oriented. They have most likely spent the previous four years strategizing about law school admissions, with the hope of landing a lucrative job down the road with their newly minted J.D. It would be an act of utter folly, contrary to the future orientation that helped land them at UCLA, to put their future career in jeopardy by sending so crude and juvenile a note, one that would simply serve as a pretext for more racial agitation. Dean Moran had announced on February 20 that a police investigation into the origin of the note was under way. That was the last mention of the investigation from the administration. Rumors circulated among the faculty that the note had proved a hoax, but the administration did not publicize that finding, if true. I asked a law school spokesman what the police had uncovered; she ignored the question while disgorging diversity boilerplate. The UCLA police department would only say that the investigation was ongoing.

But in the unlikely event that the note was real, Moran’s reaction was still excessive. Even if one law student sent a hate note, that aberrant behavior doesn’t represent the daily reality at the school. It is ludicrous to suggest that UCLA’s white and Asian students need “cross-cultural competency” training in how to talk to blacks and Hispanics. The Facebook comments defending a self-help discussion in response to the local robberies were civil and reasoned, contrary to Gardner’s characterization of them as “disrespectful” and “detestable.” As for the faculty, no evidence exists that they are guilty of “unconscious bias” in their teaching, and it is an insult to imply otherwise. The entire law school environment is a paragon of racial tolerance, as any fair-minded administrator should recognize.

Moran should have condemned the hate note, if real, as the action of one immature, unmoored individual who grossly violated everything that the law school embodies, promised an investigation, and left it at that. Instead, she chose to feed the patent delusion that black students are under siege and “unsafe” at the school, thus encouraging in them a lifetime disposition toward similarly baseless perceptions. (Moran announced without explanation at the start of the 2014 fall semester that she would be leaving her position as soon as a replacement could be found.)

UCLA’s third outbreak of racial complaint, in November 2013, prompted a response from the head of the university itself. A maudlin student-made video blamed UCLA for the allegedly low number of black male undergraduates at the school—3.3 percent—in a state with only a 6 percent black population. The film has received more than 2 million views on YouTube.

Black Bruins opens with a shot of the names of two Black Panthers killed by a rival radical at a UCLA student meeting in 1969. Implication: UCLA is responsible for their deaths. Apparently, that shooting was just the start of UCLA’s long war against men of color. The camera pans to a group of hostile-looking black male students standing outside a campus building behind the filmmaker, third-year African-American Studies major Sy Stokes. Accompanied by ominous music, Stokes recites a frequently unintelligible rap denouncing UCLA as a “fraudulent institutionalized racist corporation” that deliberately excludes blacks and that “refuses to come to [their] defense.” One particularly confusing passage concerns black paint, which Stokes claims black children were taught to avoid and which symbolized the melanin in their skin. Since black paints are only used to write words on a white background, Stokes proposes, and “if words are all we are good for, then don’t you dare tell us to silence our voices when we dare to speak.” We are left to wonder not just at the passage’s logic but also at who is telling blacks to silence their voices.

According to Black Bruins, UCLA is as much at fault for the 74 percent black-male graduation rate as it is for the 3.3 percent black-male enrollment rate. Never mind that the school has poured millions into academic support services and the usual panoply of multicultural programming. Never mind that the school has come up with scheme after scheme to get around California’s constitutional ban on governmental racial preferences, admitting black students at more than double the rate than can be explained by their credentials and socioeconomic status, and at three times the rate of much poorer Asians under an additional admissions process known as “supplemental review.” Never mind that all males—at less than 45 percent—are underrepresented in the undergraduate population and that whites—at 28 percent—are also underrepresented compared with their 39 percent share of California’s population. UCLA’s overall black enrollment—3.8 percent, when females are included—is actually higher than one would expect, given blacks’ low level of academic preparedness and high rates of truancy. (And it is virtually identical to black enrollment in the entire University of California system.) In 2013, only 11 percent of black eighth-graders in California were proficient in math, compared with 42 percent of whites and 61 percent of Asians; 15 percent of black eighth-graders were proficient at reading, compared with 44 percent of whites and 51 percent of Asians. Black elementary school students in California are chronically truant at nearly four times the state average. Only 5 percent of applications to UCLA even come from black students. Black Bruins mentioned none of these facts, of course, but they show that UCLA has used every possible lever, legal or not, to boost its black student population.

Stokes includes a typically nonsensical swipe at Sander: “According to Professor Sander, 3.3 percent is far too many black kids; on his perfectly paved roads there are far too many black skids.” (Los Angelenos would love to know where they could find some “perfectly paved roads.”) The video concludes on a lachrymose note, as the silent witnesses behind Stokes portentously remove their UCLA sweatshirts: “So with all my hopes and dreams that this university has tried to ruin, how the hell am I supposed to be proud to call myself a Bruin?”

UCLA’s administrators couldn’t line up fast enough to thank Stokes for his work and praise its artistic qualities. Janina Montero, UCLA’s vice chancellor for Student Affairs, was first out of the gate. “In their video ‘Black Bruin [The Spoken Word],’ a number of UCLA students eloquently and powerfully expressed their frustration and disappointment with the low number of African-American male students on campus,” she said in a published statement. “As a public institution that values a diverse student body, we share their dissatisfaction and frustration.” Was UCLA a “fraudulent institutionalized racist corporation” that tries to ruin the “hopes and dreams” of black students and that “refuses” to come to their “defense”? Apparently so, given Montero’s fulsome “Amen” to the entirety of Stokes’s message. Montero provided none of the academic or demographic data that would explain the 3.3 percent black-male enrollment figure. The only cause of that “low” number, according to Montero, is California’s ban on “considering race in the admissions process.” Montero eagerly reminded readers that the University of California was trying to overturn that ban in the Supreme Court. Why it should be necessary to consider race in the admissions process to achieve “diversity” went unexplained.

UCLA soon concluded that a mere vice chancellor was insufficient to respond to Stokes’s masterpiece. Chancellor Gene Block stepped up to the plate. “We are proud every time we hear [our students] convey their thoughts, experiences and feelings—as they have done recently in several now viral videos,” Block wrote in a campus-wide memo. These students’ “powerful first-hand accounts” testify to the “true impacts” of California’s ban on racial preferences, the chancellor said. As Stokes had done, Block painted a dire picture of black student life at UCLA: “Too often, many of our students of color feel isolated, as strangers in their own house. Others feel targeted—mocked or marginalized, rather than recognized and valued.” Were “students of color” right to “feel targeted—mocked and marginalized”? It would appear so. Block left unsaid who was doing the “mocking” and “marginalizing,” but he seems to believe that he presides over a student body and faculty of bigots. Block went on to chastise UCLA for its reluctance to have “conversations about race.” “Make no mistake: [such conversations] can be very difficult. They are inevitably emotional. They can make people defensive. They sometimes lead to accusations. But we cannot be afraid to have these conversations, because they are so critically important not just to our university, but to society.”

Pace Block, UCLA spends vast amounts of time having “conversations about race.” But if he wants to engender even more, a good place to start would be with some facts. He could rebut the baseless allegation that UCLA deliberately destroys blacks’ “dreams.” He could lay out the vast academic-achievement gap, whose existence demolishes the claim that the absence of racial proportionality in the student body or faculty results from bias. Most important, he could provide a dose of reality. “This campus is one of the world’s most enviable educational institutions,” he could say, “whose academic splendors lie open to all its students. You will never again have as ready an opportunity to absorb knowledge. Exploit the privilege. You are surrounded by well-meaning, compassionate faculty who only want to help you. Study, write, and immerse yourself in timeless books. Apply yourself with everything you’ve got, and you will graduate prepared for a productive, intellectually rich life.”

Rather than opting for the truth, Block groveled further. “I also appreciate that trust is earned and, among our critics, we must and will work harder to earn it,” he wrote, in closing. He did not explain why UCLA should be mistrusted. Had it misled its black students? Discriminated against them? Block did not say. He did, however, remind them of UCLA’s soon-to-be-hired new vice chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the two inaptly named “diversity prevention officers,” the latter of whom would “investigate . . . racial and ethnic bias or discrimination among our faculty as well as providing education and training.”
And he bludgeoned the faculty yet again to pass a “diversity” course requirement for undergraduates, something of a sacred crusade for Block. (The faculty finally caved in at the end of October and passed the mandate, after voting it down three previous times.)

More layers of diversity bureaucracy won’t have the slightest effect on black high schoolers’ inadequate academic skills, which is the sole reason that blacks are not proportionally represented in the college student body. Stokes came closer to this fact than the administration has in an MSNBC interview following the breakout video: “I feel the focus is, you know, there’s this general consensus within the black community, mostly, you know, the lower socioeconomic-status areas, that you either become a rapper, or a basketball player, or football player to become successful,” he said. “The stress on academics isn’t there anymore—or it actually never was.” Stokes immediately obliterated this inadvertent acknowledgment of personal responsibility with more victimology, however: “It’s used against us to keep us at that low point,” he said. The problem, in other words, is not blacks’ lack of engagement in school; it’s that society somehow “uses” that lack of engagement to keep blacks down.

Other colleges embrace the academic-racism fiction just as fervently. In March 2014, Harvard’s black students posted their own viral photo series, “I, Too, Am Harvard,” displaying the alleged microaggressions to which Harvard’s own eggshell plaintiffs have been subject (the series’ creator, the daughter of two critical race theory law professors, explained: “We have to show that, like, these little daily microaggressions are just, like, part of the bubbling up of greater tensions that are, like, underlying this whole, like, post racial, this, like, post racial surface”). Students at Oberlin, Fordham, and numerous other schools have created webpages to catalog their racial slights at the hands of other students.

The adult indulgence of this fiction is far from innocuous. Any student who believes that the university is an “unsafe,” racially hostile environment is unlikely to take full advantage of its resources and will likely bear a permanent racial chip on his shoulder. Becoming an adult means learning the difference between a real problem and a trivial one. Being asked: “So, like, what are you?” (a Fordham “microaggression”) belongs in the trivial category, especially in a world that has been taught for the last three decades that the most important thing about an individual is his racial and ethnic identity. The time spent agitating about such innocent, if clumsy, inquiries would be far better dedicated to studying for an organic chemistry or a French literature exam. The equally preposterous conceit that the university is “unsafe” for females has similarly distorting effects, creating more perpetual victims whose fragile egos are constantly threatened by the ordinary give-and-take of life and who see a “war on women” at every turn.

The universities’ encouragement of victimology has wider implications beyond the campus. The same imperative to repress any acknowledgment of black academic underachievement as the cause of black underrepresentation in higher education is more fatefully at work in repressing awareness of disproportionate black criminality as the cause of black overrepresentation in the criminal-justice system. When a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot an unarmed black teen in August 2014, for example, the media suppressed any information about the incident that complicated its favored narrative about police brutality, all the while pumping out strained stories about racism in law enforcement and public life more generally. The result was days of violence, looting, and arson, from a populace that had been told at every opportunity that it is the target of ubiquitous discrimination.

Colleges today are determined to preserve in many of their students the thin skin and solipsism of adolescence, rather than turning them into dispassionate adults. They build ever more monumental bureaucracies to indulge those traits. By now, of course, many of the adults running colleges are indistinguishable from their eggshell plaintiff students. The rest of us bear the costs, in the maintenance of public policies founded on an equally spurious victimology.

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