Walking under Phelps Gate I always get the sense of passing from one world to another, from the open expanse of the New Haven Green to the ancient, fortress-like beauty of Old Campus. Yesterday, the feeling was acute. I was coming from a demonstration for immigrant rights, a spirited embodiment of New Haven’s civil society. Students and workers, citizens and noncitizens marched together for the rights of the most vulnerable members of society, despite the gathering rain clouds. Several hundred people attended yesterday’s events as a part of International Workers Day on the Green. “It’s ironic,” Howard Zinn said in his speech Tuesday, “that we’re building walls around the world to keep people from going from one place to another. … You may recall that when the Berlin Wall was built, we were outraged; people should not be prevented from moving from one part of Germany to another. And when the wall came down, everyone was happy; yes, this is freedom.”
“This is a change of scene,” I remarked idly as a friend and I flashed our Yale ID cards and passed through the gate. “More like ‘obscene,’ ” she said. There was something jarring about leaving a political protest demanding that walls be torn down only to go inside a gated compound where an exclusive celebration was taking place. I was sober but exhausted from an all-night work session. I was exhilarated from the march and pumped to see T.I.
What my friend and I confronted was a sea of students stumbling both from drink and from the easy certitude that you get when you attend a $100,000 party in a gated courtyard. From where I stood, the crowd seemed to be composed mostly of white students in polo shirts. A friend observed a few who seized the occasion to “dress black,” by, for example, tying a bandana around a leg. The mostly black and Latino residents of New Haven were kept out. T.I. did his thing, and the white kids shouted the N-word along with him.
To say that the New Haven Green represents one world and Old Campus another is true, but only because one group of people (Yalies) is allowed inside the walls all of the time, and another (the rest of the world) is only allowed inside during the daytime, unless it’s Spring Fling. The cliche of the “Yale bubble” is an experience of emotional and physical separation from the world, not a sociological reality. Yale and its students are unavoidably embedded in a set of political and economic relations with the outside world that makes the idea of the bubble a voluntary construction. The elaborate system of proximity cards, security guards, cloistered courtyards and residential segregation that makes our campus a bubble is a fiction, a strategy of ignoring the way our dollars and our decisions affect the rest of the world. This fact extends from Yale’s troubled labor relations to recent news that the University continues to “short” the stocks of companies that do business with the genocidal regime in Khartoum, despite their pledge to divest from Sudan. We can imagine ourselves to be separate, but it will only be in our heads.
I will admit to having an ambivalent relationship with Yale. Intellectually I have flourished here. I have formed friendships that I expect to last the rest of my life. I have also had the opportunity and the duty to organize, to speak and to write against injustices in which I perceive my own university to be complicit. I have never felt comfortable with the walls that separate Yale from the outside world. Maybe this is because I went to high school in a college town (Hanover, N.H., home to Dartmouth), and to this day I can get turned away at a party or any other event because the Dartmouth students “don’t want any townies to get in.” Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish and the descendent of working-class immigrants, and because of this, Yale wouldn’t have wanted me a hundred years ago. Maybe it’s because I am white and a man, and as a result I have no way to feel the sense of exclusion that others feel in and around Yale.
My hope is that Yale students will take a harder look in the future at Yale’s external relations: Where is Yale’s money going? What is the status of Yale’s labor relations? Is Yale really, as it claims in the advertisements, “contributing to a strong New Haven”? And finally, are you comfortable with what Yale is doing beyond these walls?
Jared Malsin is a senior in Berkeley College. This is his last regular column.