Campus stance on free speech facilitates trauma against Black students

Beverly Pan/Staff

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“I think this (free speech) is not the defining issue of the country. The defining issue of the country is white supremacy. Most of the debate around free speech and hate speech or discrimination is predicated on the notion that speech really doesn’t hurt. … Part of the question is: Does speech harm? And the answer is obviously “yes.” When we talk about stereotype threat, when we talk about trauma, we talk about all the ways we know that speech can harm. It doesn’t mean we should not be careful about speech and it does not mean we should ban speech. It means the rationale — the underlying jurisprudence for speech is radically incoherent. We avoid that incoherence by denying the fact that speech can in fact injure.”

— john a. powell at the Free Speech Panel held on Sept. 8th, 2017


If your perceived definition of violence is limited to the confines of physical contact, that’s probably because you’ve never had to experience the psychological trauma that comes along with being a Black person in America. I didn’t need to be physically harmed to feel violated by my school Sept. 14.

I want to start by saying that the only perspective I can write from is my own. Although I cannot speak for every beautiful, unique Black student in our community at UC Berkeley, I know that I am not alone in my feelings of betrayal, disappointment and embarrassment that have festered in my heart regarding the actions taken by the UC Berkeley administration involving the events of Sept. 14th and future events to come for “Free Speech Week.”

Black students make up 2.5 percent of the student population on campus, as opposed to 13 percent of the United States population. We are a severely underrepresented minority group on campus. African American/Black students are also one of the main targets of the harmful rhetoric spewed out by various “alt-right” hate speakers who have made appearances on campus under the protection and defense of the campus administration.

UC Berkeley’s Black Student Union has demanded a Task Force sector of UC Berkeley’s administration be devoted to the recruitment and retention of Black students on campus to combat this crushing and shameful underrepresentation of the Black community. But Sept. 14, the administration made it clear that its priorities centered around protecting the rights of a former Breitbart editor at large by allocating hundreds of thousands of dollars for security in efforts to protect a speaker who is known to target communities of color. The administration put Black students and their right to feel safe in their own academic environment on the back burner, while completely failing to acknowledge the trauma associated with the police experienced by the majority of Black students on campus.

In addition, the money spent on a militarized police presence are funds that could have gone to uplifting underrepresented minority groups on campus, whether that be in the form of scholarships, affordable housing, or resources dedicated to solving the problem of our underrepresentation.

The message rang loud and clear on that day: UC Berkeley does not care about its Black students.

Ironically, Chancellor Carol Christ’s welcome statement to the campus commends UC Berkeley as “a place that is steadfastly committed to widening the doors to educational opportunity, a place that sets young people from all backgrounds on a path towards success in their lives and in their careers.” If Christ seeks to widen the doors to educational opportunity for young people of all backgrounds, why then did the administration make the decision to close off the César E. Chávez Student Learning Center and Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union? Both of these spaces house resources utilized by students of color not only for emotional support but for academic support as well. What would Chávez and King have to say about buildings named in their honor being closed down at irregular hours to accommodate speakers who have done nothing but belittle and degrade their legacy and sacrifice?  

Classes were canceled, job opportunities for students of color were postponed, the Multicultural Community Center — a safe space for underrepresented minorities to gather and do homework — was closed, bus routes were changed, resources were cut off. All for what? Where were these “wide open door to educational opportunity” for our Black and Brown students?

I write this op-ed as a call to action for members of UC Berkeley’s administration as well members of the UC Berkeley student body. Stop ignoring us. Stop silencing us. Listen to us and respect our demands. We have every right to safe spaces on campus and the education that we pay for, and we will not continue to be chased away from our campus.

Shelby Mayes is a UC Berkeley student and the membership development director for the Black Student Union.