Students debate Melissa Harris-Perry on tactics of fighting racism

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by Jordan Green

A student who complained about a white frat party and celebrity professor Melissa Harris-Perry engage in a tense dialogue about effective strategies of social change, as Wake Forest University takes action to address racial disparities and promote inclusion.

Anonymous chalked messages coinciding with visits from prospective students on the campus of Wake Forest University appear to have hit their intended target.

The messages read: “Diversity and inclusion — you’ve been lied to,” “You’re not safe here,” “Wake will lie for your money” and “Does Wake Forest look like the website?”

Days later Vice President of Campus Life Penny Rue told the campus newspaper Old Gold & Black that the chalked messages struck her “as an act of cowardice because no one took responsibility for it.”

During the question-and-answer portion of a recent town-hall meeting held at Wait Chapel on Nov. 19 to address challenges surrounding diversity and inclusion, the perpetrator of the chalking outed herself and confronted Rue.

“As someone who’s personally had my life threatened on YikYak, who has been monkey-called as I walked through Manchester Plaza and witnessed my best friend have a lit cigarette thrown at her and then asked, ‘Does that make me racist?’ I still chalked,” said Brittany Salaam, a student from Durham, before several hundred of her peers. “And yes, I chalked. And I still show up to events like this and show my face and speak out. I take great offense to being called a coward.”

Salaam, who is black, experienced a backlash on social media after filing a complaint about an annual hip-hop party held by Kappa Alpha Order. The white fraternity officially canceled the party in response to concerns by some that it caricatured black culture.

Salaam turned the accusation back on Rue, who is white, prompting a wave of applause.

“Furthermore, it’s worth saying that I could easily call members of the administration ‘cowards’ because the hostility towards student activism on this campus is unwarranted and surely dishonorable,” Salaam said. “So taking all things into account, would you, Dr. Rue, consider me a coward? Was our anonymity without purpose? Would you consider yourself a coward as a member of administration? And last, if we’re all cowards, who in here is actually brave?”

Rue responded that she values direct, face-to-face interaction.

“I was angry — I’ll confess that,” she said. “I felt that someone had done harm to something that I highly value: a process of trying to bring a more diverse student body to our campus.”

She also condemned the anonymous social-media messages that prompted the chalked protests.

“I will say right here: YikYak is vile,” Rue said. “It brings out the very worst in people and, sadly, the very worst in the Wake Forest community.”

As Salaam and another student, Joe LeDuc, challenged Rue, the vice president for campus life received a gesture of support from a high-profile and somewhat surprising figure: Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor in the university’s politics and international affairs department and a popular television host at MSNBC.

Harris-Perry recounted that she had walked into the Office of Multicultural Affairs and criticized students for the chalkings. She went on to say that characterizing something as “an act of cowardice” is not the same thing as saying the person who perpetrated the act is a “coward.”

“But the most important thing I want to do right now is to not allow it to be about Penny Rue having said that alone in the Old Gold & Black,” Harris-Perry said. “She may have been the person who was quoted. She is not alone in believing that. And I’m going to stand here and take account for that. And so if you have problems, you should also have them with me.”

Harris-Perry also received applause from students for her comments.

The wide-ranging program aired several issues, including allegations of racial bias from the Wake Forest University Police Department, perceived disparities between policing parties held by black fraternities in public events spaces on campus and white fraternities in student-run lounges, high-risk alcohol use and sexual assault, the treatment of LGBT students and the experience of international students on campus.

One student who identifies as transsexual pleaded for gender-neutral bathrooms and residential housing, along with understanding for transgender and transsexual students.

“I am a Catholic, Mexican-American transsexual, first-generation college student from a small, conservative, rural town recovering from a binge-eating disorder and depression,” the person said. “More than that, I am a human being just like every single one of you.”

Rue responded that an LGBT task force is considering recommendations for the university and should be able to implement some changes quickly, but did not elaborate.

Much of the discussion centered on university practices in policing parties and how they are applied by race. The Nov. 19 event followed a town hall organized by the same group of students last spring. At that town hall, students of color complained about excessive policing at parties held by black fraternities at the Barn, a public events space on campus. Wake Forest University Police Chief Regina Lawson commissioned an independent investigation in response.

The investigation cleared the department of racial bias to the surprise of few students of color, but recommended that the university review its policies on student events. While black fraternities typically use the Barn, which has been heavily policed, to hold parties because of lack of financial resources, many white fraternities have their own lounges. “Activities at the lounges sometimes result in unsupervised parties thus creating an opportunity for heavy and underage drinking,” the report found. “Therefore, we recommend that the administration review this procedure to make sure that all student events are policed in an equal manner.”

Goldstein, who joined the Wake Forest as dean of students in July, said the university is hiring students as event staff to supplant police officers at parties.

“We can manage issues at the Barn with event resource staff,” he said. “There were 16 officers at events at the Barn at the beginning of the year. Now, we have three officers at the start of an event at the Barn. One stays, and then the other two peel off so they’re freed up to respond to needs that arise on other parts of the campus.”

Goldstein expressed wariness about over-policing events at both the Barn and the lounges to address excessive drinking and sexual assault, which he said could have the unintended consequence of pushing parties off campus. He said policing is only a small part of the effort to curb excessive drinking and sexual assault, noting that the university is ramping up its wellness program.

“I’m concerned about high-risk alcohol consumption, which is correlated with sexual violence,” he said. “The ability to give consent and to interpret consent is impaired with high-risk alcohol consumption. It’s a problem on campuses across the country, and it’s a problem on the campus of Wake Forest University.”

After the Nov. 19 town hall, Harris-Perry engaged in a contentious but mutually respectful dialogue with Salaam and LeDuc, as about a hundred students milled around them. Harris said she thought the chalking was “self-indulgent” — that it felt good for the person doing it, but didn’t accomplish any meaningful change.

LeDuc challenged Harris-Perry on whether she was suggesting an equivalency between the then-anonymous chalked protest and the anonymous hate-filled messages on social media.

“If students don’t feel safe speaking out, what other options do they have?” he asked. “Are you saying that by speaking out anonymously as a member of a marginalized group, it’s equivalent to someone in the dominant group expressing hate anonymously through social media? To me, that equivalency is hard to swallow.”

Regina Lawson et al
D’Andre’ Starnes, Penny Rue, Stephen Boyd and Regina Lawson (l-r)

Harris-Perry responded that marginalized people fighting oppression need to act strategically, and that poorly conceived tactics tend to discredit all members of the group. The reason that civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr. and Diane Nash “moved towards a model of nonviolence,” Harris-Perry said, is because they realized their adversaries had “bigger guns.” She argued that they chose to take the higher ground precisely because they recognized the power differential.

Harris-Perry likened anonymous chalking as a reaction to hate speech to property destruction as a reaction to police killing unarmed citizens.

“When Ferguson goes down in the next 48 hours, there’s going to have to be a dialogue about how to handle it,” Harris-Perry. “I’m not saying looting and property destruction is the equivalent of a child’s life being taken. But it will be seen that way. And it would be extremely unstrategic for the movement if individuals take that route.”

Before excusing herself, Salaam told Harris-Perry: “What you did today, it felt self-indulgent. And the way you talked to the students at [the Office of Multicultural Affairs], it felt intimidating.”

  • Ms. Harris-Perry’s remarks in defense of her employer against the grave threat of chalk – as well as her horrendous lack of nuance on non-violence as a topic put me in mind of a George Orwell quote: “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf.”

    • Steve Sumerford

      First, congratulations on a great newspaper. In my opinion, we have needed a paper like this for decades. It beautifully complements our other “alternative” paper, the Peacemaker. Some of my friends started The Independent in Durham 30+ years ago and I remember how damn hard they worked to get that paper off the ground. So, I know it’s a challenge but y’all are doing great! Thank you!

      Second, I totally agree with my friend John’s comments about Harris-Perry. As a longtime student of nonviolence, I would urge her to read some of King’s writings on the subject. By suggesting that King and other nonviolent warriors only chose nonviolence because the other side had bigger guns is ridiculous and an insult to King, Gandhi and so many others.

      I think Gandhi and King would be fully in support of students chalking. I caneven picture the Mahatma himself down on the sidewalk chalking away about injustice.

  • Lincoln

    I think chalking is an appropriate means of self expression – at least non destructive. Perhaps if the administration provided some additional routes and a tip line it might ease the notion that concerns aren’t being heard.

    I think whether you agree with the specifics one needs to accept the interpretation of some students that this problems are pervasive, and try to win them over by involving them in formulating the solution. It’s only from there that these issues can be unraveled and examined.