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Waking to the Woke

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Waking to the Woke

Northwestern University’s president takes a commendable hard line against student rioting—but he helped create the climate for the destructive behavior. October 27, 2020
The Social Order
Public safety

Since June, a group of Northwestern University students has demanded that the school disband its campus police force and sever ties with the Evanston, Illinois police department. On Saturday, October 17, their protests became unruly. Members of NU Community Not Cops (NUCNC) sprayed anti-cop graffiti on private and public property, broke a window at the local Whole Foods market, set at least one trash can on fire, and burned a school banner. The following Monday, Northwestern’s president denounced the violence in the most unequivocal of terms—and was himself promptly denounced as a racist for having done so. But the president, Morton Schapiro, to his enormous credit, has neither apologized nor backed down on his refusal to abolish the campus police department.

The Northwestern episode is doubly instructive. Schapiro is one of the most woke college presidents in the country. Yet he has done something that almost no Democratic politician or progressive opinion leader has dared do with such forcefulness: draw a bright line between Black Lives Matter protests and violence. Had Democratic presidential and vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris been as unhesitating in their condemnations of this year’s murderous race riots, the country might have avoided the worst of the anarchy.

But Schapiro is to a considerable extent the architect of his own problems. Over the last several years, he has pandered to the maudlin identity politics that lead students at the most prestigious colleges in the country to think of themselves as oppressed. The ongoing conflict at Northwestern should remind college presidents everywhere that they feed the beast of adolescent narcissism and self-pity at their peril.

Abolishing the police has become a favorite goal of Black Lives Matter agitators and sympathizers across the country. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is only the latest celebrity to jump on the abolition bandwagon. Students at Harvard, the University of Chicago, New York University, Ohio State University, and other schools have demanded that their campuses dismantle their security forces and eject city officers from school grounds. The Chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, Gene Block, issued a lachrymose apology this summer for allowing the Los Angeles Police Department to use an empty university parking lot as a staging area during L.A.’s anti-cop riots.

Coming from Northwestern students, the movement to abolish the campus police is particularly “performative” (to use a term favored by campus leftists) and risk-free. Northwestern is a bucolic summer camp for would-be radicals. Suburban Evanston is so crime-free that the school police force could undoubtedly be disbanded without sacrificing student safety. The Northwestern officers are not brutal or racist. The worst allegation against them by NUCNC is that they arrested protesters who tried to break into the back of the auditorium where former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was giving a speech in November 2019.

Nevertheless, on June 3, a petition started circulating to “disarm, defund, and disband” the university police. Northwestern’s administrators did what campus administrators always do when confronted by leftist student protesters: shower the aggrieved with diversity booty. The provost, vice president for student affairs, associate provost for undergraduate education, sundry deans, the interim chief diversity officer, and vice presidents for research and student affairs all met with the protesters and promised more diversity initiatives and more diversity administrators. Those additional bureaucrats would in turn crank up the pressure on the faculty for more minority faculty hires, especially in the sciences, the administrators promised. The school would roll out training sessions in inclusive pedagogy. The school brought in two outside consultants to review the campus police policies and budget. But the Northwestern bureaucrats did not commit to abolition.

Naturally, NUCNC members were affronted by this insufficient offering. One student groused to the campus newspaper that the outside consultants had asked them “gotcha” questions that “undermined the ideas behind abolition.” Translation: the consultants sought evidence to support NUCNC’s claim of police brutality and expected reasoned arguments to justify abolition. Evidence and reason are now deemed tools of white male supremacy in much of academia.

The pace of agitation picked up in mid-October. And last Saturday, student patience with the administration’s alleged intransigence snapped. Student vandals sprayed such anti-cop slogans as “Fuck 12” (“12” being ghetto slang for the police) and “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards, a particular summer favorite) on the campus police headquarters, other university buildings, and Evanston sidewalks. “More dead pigs” appeared in red on an iconic campus arch. Anti-capitalist graffiti were unleashed on Whole Foods (undoubtedly a favorite source of sustenance during anti-capitalist protests). Someone broke a store window.

One group of students, viewing themselves as besieged freedom fighters, formed human barricades around the tagging group and blocked bystanders from taking photographs. The Daily Northwestern noted with seeming incredulity that while the students spray-painted the street outside the Evanston Police Department, a man stood on the opposite corner holding an American flag.

In truth, as anti-cop riots go, this one was tame. Nevertheless, on Monday, President Schapiro sent a campus-wide email startling in its vehemence. The email opened conventionally enough, with the rhetoric that became so familiar over the summer as college presidents responded to the death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis in late May. “We, as a University, recognize the many injustices faced by Black and other marginalized groups,” Schapiro’s Monday email began. “We also acknowledge that the policing and criminal justice system in our country is too often stacked against those same communities.” (These claims are by no means proven, but they are gospel truth on campus.)

But then the missive took a surprising turn. “What started as peaceful protests,” Schapiro continued, “have recently grown into expressions that have been anything but peaceful or productive. Crowds blocked the streets of downtown Evanston and nearby residential areas, disrupting businesses and local families, defacing property and violating laws and University standards. . . . I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the overstepping of the protesters. They have no right to menace members of our academic and surrounding communities. When students and other participants are vandalizing property, lighting fires and spray-painting phrases such as ‘kill the pigs,’ we have moved well past legitimate forms of free speech.”

This was already rousing. But the peroration doubled down on Schapiro’s condemnation of vandalism: “If you haven’t yet gotten my point, I am disgusted by those who chose to disgrace this University in such a fashion. I especially condemn the effect of their actions on our friends, neighbors and other members of our community who are trying to sustain viable businesses, raise families, study and do research, while facing a global pandemic and the injustices of the world without losing their sense of humanity.” While he would remain willing to speak with anyone concerned about Northwestern policing, he would refuse to engage with anyone who uses the “tactics of intimidation and violence.”

Schapiro’s eruption was novel; the response to it, drearily routine. Students took up a trope that has been ubiquitous on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post since the summer: to denounce the destruction of property during anti-cop riots is to devalue black existence. “They care more about private property than human lives,” a student told The Daily. “There is no level of property destruction that we can do that is more violent than the cops existing.” A Northwestern alumna with NUCNC blamed the university for the violence, since it had ignored the protesters up to that point—a false proposition, as Schapiro had already pointed out in his email. The African American Studies faculty declared itself “extraordinarily troubled” by Schapiro’s denunciation of what the faculty called “nonviolent” protests, especially after his “banal. . . tepid . . . and timid” response to George Floyd’s death, his “sour, small and moribund leadership,” and his “absent presence” during six months of “staff, faculty and student distress, dismay, exhaustion and struggle.” The hashtag “#ResignMorty” started trending on social media. A group of political science professors called Schapiro’s email “unhelpful and inappropriate.” “Our President’s response was antithetical to the spirit of strong, visionary and compassionate leadership that is unafraid of meeting the students where they are and of listening to their concerns and demands with respect, reciprocity and generosity,” the faculty wrote. The political scientists reminded Schapiro that a college president’s job today is “to spearhead anti-racist change”—a statement that, sadly, is all too true, especially in light of this summer’s flood of anti-racism proclamations.

These criticisms of Schapiro’s email simply reflect the campus norm that members of official victim groups should not be held accountable for antisocial behavior. But one line of attack had bite. Schapiro had offered a self-described “personal illustration” of “the pain these protesters have caused.” “Many gathered outside my home this weekend into the early hours of the morning, chanting ‘f--- you Morty’ and ‘piggy Morty,’” he wrote. “The latter comes dangerously close to a longstanding trope against observant Jews like myself. Whether it was done out of ignorance or out of anti-Semitism, it is completely unacceptable, and I ask them to consider how their parents and siblings would feel if a group came to their homes in the middle of the night to wake up their families with such vile and personal attacks.”

Schapiro’s faculty critics jumped on his suggestion that “piggy Morty” was an anti-Semitic slur. The august pedigree of the association of “pigs” with cops dates from the Black Panthers in the 1960s, they noted. In the context of cop-bashing, “pigs” has never singled out Jews, wrote a group of Jewish Northwestern faculty, alumni, and students. The African-American Studies faculty denounced the “ignorance, narcissism, or disingenuousness” that would lead Schapiro to “personalize students referencing ‘pigs’ as an antisemitic slur.” The Jewish faculty and alumni also invoked the “long, sordid history of White Jewish leaders using antisemitism as a cudgel to denigrate Black radical protest.”

Schapiro is in no danger of denigrating Black radical protest. But the narcissism charge has some merit. His anti-Semitism complaint seems fanciful; more importantly, why isn’t it just as objectionable to call cops pigs? Trump administration officials and conservative media figures like Tucker Carlson have been harassed in their homes and in public places for the last four years. Were those attacks OK? For that matter, why didn’t Schapiro denounce the far more injurious rioting and looting in neighboring cities and towns over the summer and fall—in Chicago, Naperville, and Kenosha? But as we will see, Schapiro has a penchant for personalizing issues.

Northwestern held a virtual meeting on Tuesday, October 20, in response to the outrage over Schapiro’s Monday email. Most presidents in Schapiro’s position would have started furiously backpedaling. Instead, Schapiro held firm. He repeated his claim that the demonstrations outside his home were “disgusting” and “disgraceful,” according to The Daily Northwestern. “I absolutely stand by exactly what I said.” He even dared criticize the African-American Studies letter. “I was sorry to read it,” Schapiro said imperturbably. The signatories didn’t read his email “all that carefully,” he said, since it “mischaracterizes” what he has done as a president and who he is as a person.

By week’s end, the anthropology department and the Asian American Studies and Latina and Latino Studies programs had released additional statements condemning Schapiro’s October 19 email and expressing support for the African American Studies Department. The Asian American and Latina and Latino programs were particularly incensed, since student activism and protest, the statements said, were key components of their own academic mission (thus betraying the ideal of scholarly disinterestedness).

Schapiro’s initial reaction to the Saturday, October 17 unrest and his subsequent refusal to back down are thrillingly unconventional. He deserves plaudits for so full-throated a rejection of politically correct vandalism. But if today he is bucking campus orthodoxies, until quite recently he was strengthening them. He helped create the campus climate that views student victimhood as justifying property destruction.

In August 2016, the University of Chicago broke with current academic convention by announcing to incoming freshmen that the school would not be providing them with “safe spaces” where they can retreat from “ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” It would not support “trigger warnings.” It would not cancel controversial speakers. This defense of academic freedom garnered widespread attention and, at least in conservative circles, widespread acclaim.

Schapiro apparently felt that a response was necessary. In September 2016, he told incoming freshmen that Northwestern would not only provide them with trigger warnings and safe spaces; it would also help them find those safe spaces. He imputed white privilege to safe-space skeptics: “The people who decry safe spaces do it from their segregated housing places, from their jobs without diversity—they do it from their country clubs,” Schapiro said. And with his characteristic vehemence, he added, “It just drives me nuts.” He called people who deny the existence of microaggressions “idiots,” according to The Daily Northwestern. And he again put his penchant for personalizing on display. Microaggressions “cut you to the core,” he said, and aren’t easily forgotten. He himself remembered every microaggression he had experienced—perhaps not an ideal emotional stance in life or an ideal model for young people.

Though Schapiro’s speech was clearly a retort to the Chicago Principles, he had made such arguments before. In January 2016, he had defended safe spaces in a Washington Post op-ed. A fellow college president had described to him a thoroughly typical incident on that president’s campus. Two white students had approached the “black table” in the dining hall and asked if they could join the group. Why? they were asked coolly; there are empty seats elsewhere. Unabashed by this reception, the students explained that since their college encourages “uncomfortable learning,” they thought they should push themselves out of their usual boundaries. The black students declined to let the white students sit with them. (The unnamed institution is likely Williams College, which promotes the concept of “uncomfortable learning” and whose black students are particularly radicalized.)

Schapiro asks of the black student response: “Is that really so scandalous?” The honest answer: no, it no longer is, given the officially sanctioned resegregation of college campuses. But such unapologetic racial contempt and separatism should be a scandal, given their perverse reenactment of the very regime that we are daily told continues to destroy black lives.

Shapiro, however, accepted the idea that leisure-time racial mixing was an undue burden on blacks. “We all deserve safe spaces. Those black students had every right to enjoy their lunches in peace. There are plenty of times and places to engage in uncomfortable learning, but that wasn’t one of them. The white students, while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.”

No one complains when members of a sports team or a singing group eat together, Schapiro noted. But those are common passions and accomplishments. Race is not an accomplishment. Thanks to identity politics, however, it is viewed as such on a college campus (and increasingly in the world at large), conferring power and prestige on everyone who is not white.

If the white students’ ingenuous request deserves criticism, it would be because of its awkward, lab-experimental nature, and because of its acceptance of the idea that a meal between black and white students is indeed “uncomfortable.” But the hapless students are hardly to blame for that assumption; it is the very foundation stone of the diversity regime, on which a vast bureaucratic apparatus rests.

The Washington Post op-ed supplemented the dining room story with an anecdote of Schapiro’s own. The previous summer, Northwestern had contemplated moving one of its multicultural offices into the school’s Black House; the pushback, Schapiro said, was “immediate and powerful.” Schapiro agreed with the pushback. A “safe space exclusively for blacks” should be preserved, he wrote; after all, Northwestern’s Hillel house, Catholic Center, and other “safe spaces” go unchallenged. But race is different, or should be—a non-defining component of one’s identity that need not create barriers between people.

The biggest problem with Schapiro’s reasoning, however, is not its embrace of resegregation but its promotion of the idea that underrepresented minorities on college campuses face danger from circumambient bias. It was ironic, but true, Schapiro wrote, that the best hope we have for creating “an inclusive community” is to “first create spaces where members of each group feel safe.” In fact, there is no safer place than an American university for history’s traditionally marginalized groups. Still shunned in many societies across the globe, these former outcasts are actively celebrated on college campuses. They are surrounded by open-minded, well-meaning adults, who want all their students, particularly underrepresented minorities, to succeed. The irony runs in the opposite direction: the idea that starting from an obsession with racial identity and division will ever end with an “inclusive community.”

Schapiro combined his penchant for calling out white privilege with his belief in the inherent difficulty of cross-race interactions in a joint op-ed from August 2016. He and Barry Glassner, then president of Lewis and Clark College, lauded the Black Lives Matter campus protests that had rocked universities in the 2015–2016 academic year. Those protests had included two hours of flagrantly disrespectful racial abuse of Yale University sociologist Nicholas Christakis by a mob of spoiled students and the unforgettable demand from journalism professor Melissa Click at the University of Missouri for some “muscle” to prevent a student reporter from taking pictures of a BLM protest. (Click was fired from her job but quickly hired by Gonzaga University, where she continues to churn out essays about Lady Gaga, cable television shows, and gender roles in the Twilight teen-vampire movie series.)

Such protests were necessary and understandable, wrote Schapiro and Glassner in the Los Angeles Times, given how difficult diversity is. If inclusion were not so difficult, “apartment buildings and suburban enclaves, corporate work teams and boardrooms, the U.S. House and Senate” would be appreciably more diverse. White reluctance to be diverse, we are to believe, keeps those settings non-inclusive. Schapiro and Glassner criticized “pundits and politicians who opine from gated communities and segregated offices” about campus matters and who remain ignorant of the insults, hatred, and physical threats endured by minority students.

How just the symmetry, then, when Northwestern’s African American Studies faculty complained to Schapiro that it was only when his own “pleasant suburban life” was disrupted by student protesters that he was moved to true outrage. If Schapiro is going to tie his criticism of other people’s worldviews to where they live, his own luxurious surroundings are fair game.

Schapiro’s belief that Northwestern is unsafe for minorities absent administrative intervention led to a PR debacle last year. The College Republicans had invited former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to speak, provoking the usual hysteria. The Daily Northwestern covered the agitation but then issued an apology for doing so. The paper had “contributed to the harm students experienced” from this “traumatic event” by posting photos of the protests on Twitter, the editors penitently acknowledged. Protesters found the photos “retraumatizing.” The paper had thus violated its paramount obligation to ensure that “our fellow students feel safe.” When members of NUCNC blocked photographs of their vandalism on Saturday, October 17, they would have been justified in thinking their actions conformed to community norms.

The Daily’s apology was widely mocked, including by the Chicago Tribune editorial board. Schapiro, however, took a different tack. While supporting the right of the College Republicans to invite Sessions, Schapiro let it be known that the former Senator was a poor choice to bring to campus. Moreover, he himself was “not a fan,” as if that were any surprise. Sessions’ speech “was polarizing. All it was was making the campus more unhappy.” So while Schapiro paid lip service to the idea of bringing in conservative thought to Northwestern, that conservative thought should not be too conservative, lest things simply “blow up.”

Surrounded, as Northwestern’s minority students have been taught to believe they are, by so much threat and misunderstanding, it is not surprising that students felt entitled to act out their victimhood with some street-cred-boosting property destruction. Schapiro would respond that his support for safe spaces in no way entailed support for civic havoc. But the coddled mentality of grievance has driven a huge proportion of this year’s civic violence; in practice, the grievance and the violence are not separable. Had Schapiro and every other college president told students the truth for the last several decades—that they are supremely privileged to be studying at a university and to have at their fingertips knowledge of greatness and beauty; that there is nothing that a perceived “microaggression” can do to block them from their pursuit of wisdom; that they should transcend their narrow, petty selves and lose themselves in study—the chance that Northwestern students and those from other campuses would have so blithely wielded rock and aerosol spray against their perceived oppressors would have been much lower.

Schapiro’s condemnation of vandalism is welcome, even if, ideally, he would have spoken up against the national violence before he was himself subject to harassment. Time will tell whether his firm stand now will change the victim mentality on his own campus. For now, Schapiro is reaping what he has sown.

Photo: BSPollard/iStock

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