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Jelani Cobb: Free speech as cover for bigotry on college campuses


  • New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb speaks to Anna Branch, UMass Amherst’s associate chancellor for equity and inclusion, as just part of a symposium on polarization at the university on Feb. 6, 2019. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2019 11:22:27 PM

AMHERST — It’s no secret that on college campuses, the issue of “free speech” is often front and center.

At the University of Massachusetts on Tuesday evening, New Yorker writer and historian Jelani Cobb said that in reality, conversations around free speech are often masking a larger problem on campuses.

“The debates around free speech really tend to be more around, ‘how much of my intolerance do I get to broadcast into your life?’” Cobb said.

Cobb was in conversation with Anna Branch, associate chancellor for equity and inclusion at UMass, as just part of a symposium on polarization at the university. The symposium comes after a semester when 20 “acts of hate” occured on the UMass campus, according to the university’s own numbers. Those incidents included racist, anti-Semitic and other bigoted speech across campus.

“Who gets to decide when speech crosses between free and intolerant?” Branch asked Cobb in response.

Cobb said the question isn’t hard to answer, but that somehow people treat the issue differently on college campuses from anywhere else. For example, he said, in a workplace, you wouldn’t tolerate some of the speech that on college campuses might get defended under the banner of “free speech.”

“We treat college campuses as if they are a kind of geographic asterisk, that there are these particular places that don’t have any relationship to the world,” Cobb said.

White people wearing blackface is in the news following the discovery of a racist photo in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook, so Cobb used blackface as an example. He referred to the 2015 incident at Yale University when the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee wrote to students, simply asking them not to wear “culturally unaware and insensitive” costumes on Halloween, including blackface.

Following that message, a faculty member and student residence administrator wrote an email to students in her dorm, saying that students should be able to wear any costume they want. Her message said the university asking students not to wear those racist costumes amounted to an attack on free speech, and that American universities were becoming “places of censure and prohibition.”

Cobb said that to invoke free speech in a case like that is to ignore the history of symbols like blackface, which historically coincided with slavery and the lynching of black people.

“We have these kind of straw men that we use to avoid these other conversations, and the straw men are standing in place of, ‘I like my racism,’” Cobb said of those kinds of arguments on campuses.

As for polarization on campus, Cobb said that once it is possible for people to recognize each other’s basic humanity — in other words, to stop defending bigotry using the banner of free speech — engaging with people you disagree with is a necessary experience.

“At least half of what you’re paying for is access to everyone else who entered that institution with you,” Cobb said of attending college. Those “circular” conversations among students, prompted by the university and its function, are as important as the “linear” conversations between professors and students. He compared universities to dating apps, saying that the institution in a way curates a group of people you might be interested in talking to.

“You really have every motivation to have those kinds of interactions,” he said.

Curating conversations, and not tolerating certain kinds of speech, is something that is often done in academia, Cobb said. To give an example, he said it’s not possible for anyone to come up with a “crackpot” theory and publish it in a respected academic journal. In the same way, he said universities shouldn’t allow any racist to just come and speak on campus.

“We’re not violating your free speech rights, but what we are saying is we have a basic floor of the competency of the ideas that we will be allowed to be promulgated in this place,” Cobb said.

“Yet we have racial crackpots who show up on campus every year, and under the banner of free speech are allowed to abuse the prestige of institutions … I simply don’t buy the argument that filtering these kinds of events violates what a university is supposed to do.”

To do otherwise, Cobb said, is to create a space that is unwelcoming for students of color, and leads to lower retention rates for those students.

Cobb’s speech was just one of the day’s events. Other panelists discussed topics like the history of hate. Lecia Brooks, an outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, talked about the present-day status of hate and extremism in the country, and several UMass scholars talked about the structural factors that drive polarization.

Students also took part in breakout sessions that focused on how to build the skills necessary to prevent polarization.

Branch said she made sure the event took place early in the semester because of the importance of the topic.

“It is a chance to kind of reset and start a different kind of conversation,” Branch told the Gazette after her talk with Cobb.

The university community needs to start digging into the question of why bigoted acts were happening on campus, and to come to an understanding of how best to move forward, Branch said.

“It’s not just enough to say each time, ‘This is bad,’” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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