“With your state filled with homosexuals, filled with degenerates, filled with disease … With all of this going on in your state, you should welcome me like the return of Jesus Christ.”
These words are almost too offensive and disturbing to print, and yet they are attributed to a speaker who will be hosted at UC Berkeley this weekend. We are certain they are not reflective of the campus community. However, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan — who uttered these words — will be speaking at Cal on March 10 during the annual Afrikan Black Coalition Conference as its keynote speaker.
On its own, this conference is an incredible display of unity and vision by students across the University of California system. The weekend is dedicated to discussing and drawing upon the history of resilience and activism of our black student community while simultaneously connecting participants with current issues in the UC system and beyond. However, the hurtful opinions that Farrakhan has publicly expressed regarding marginalized communities directly undermines the progressive work that the conference seeks to accomplish. Farrakhan is undoubtedly a powerful speaker for the black community, but it is unacceptable to support an empowering speech for one community at the expense of countless others.
As the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, UC Berkeley continues to be an environment in which its faculty and students are constantly challenged by and engaged with new ideas. Simply put, we value the right to free speech. At the same time, UC Berkeley is an institution committed to equity and inclusion and ensuring that each individual feels comfortable on his or her own campus. For this reason, even if Farrakhan does not echo his previous intolerant statements, his presence alone speaks volumes. By granting him an audience, we are condoning his previous actions, and in so doing, damaging the delicate campus climate we strive to protect.
As the President and Academic Affairs Vice President, we are offended as female students. As the External Affairs Vice President, I am offended as a Jewish student. As the Executive Vice President, I am offended as a gay student. It is not our intention to reduce this to a personal issue. Rather, we recognize that the four of us represent a small sample of the incredible diversity at Cal, and when one speaker has the ability to directly offend each of us in different ways, that alone reveals the problematic nature of his presence on campus.
Controversial speakers should, of course, be allowed to speak at UC Berkeley, but there is an enormous difference between controversy and hate speech. The words of Louis Farrakhan are far beyond solely controversial. Communities will be cut off from this event by feeling uncomfortable and intimidated by his words.
There is a hard line between upholding free speech and instigating divisiveness. The beauty of Cal is its diversity, and an event like this attacks the very character that makes us one of the most respected universities in the world. As our campus principles of community declare, “We … strive to uphold a just community in which discrimination and hate are not tolerated.”
This event is a beautiful celebration of African American culture and activism. It seems ironic that at a conference at which civil rights will be at the center of discussion, the chosen keynote speaker has drawn condemnation from the first black president of the United States. During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama proclaimed, “I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan.”
Farrakhan’s reputation for anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and intolerance are well-documented. We hope the event’s organizers reconsider the invitation they extended to Farrakhan and instead choose a speaker who better reflects the mission of the conference and this university. Unfortunately, our campus attracted negative media attention due to a divisive political event earlier this year. Students should not come to expect this as the norm but rather learn from past experiences and speak out when action is needed.
Please, let Farrakhan exercise his free speech someplace else.
Joey Freeman is external affairs vice president of the ASUC. Vishalli Loomba is president of the ASUC. Academic Affairs Vice President Julia Joung and Executive Vice President Chris Alabastro contributed to this op-ed.