During this week’s March of Resilience in New Haven, I was in sitting up on the seventh floor of the main building at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health overlooking East Baltimore.
From high above you could see the devastation of this part of the city: boarded up buildings, trees growing through the crumbling edifices. As I sat there looking out of the windows of this great institution, the colleague I was visiting mentioned how Baltimore has the highest AIDS mortality in the country.
As I traveled back to New Haven, I read the denunciations online of the students at Yale as spoiled brats and enemies of free speech. While some conceded that racism on college campuses is a real phenomenon, what was striking in most of these commentaries was the desire to change the subject, to focus on the tactics employed by students rather than the issues they raised. These writers found it necessary to pivot away from race as quickly as possible.
The response from President Peter Salovey was far better, acknowledging the issues of free speech involved but also accepting blame for failing students of color on this campus. In the midst of all this, news emerged that one of the only queer women of color on the faculty, Karen Nakamura GRD ’01, would be moving to UC Berkeley — just the latest in a series of high profile departures, including the poet Elizabeth Alexander ’84, who is moving to Columbia next year. Clearly, Yale has failed more than its students.
But I wonder if President Salovey’s conciliatory tone is meant to manage the protests in another way. I wonder if it’s meant to contain the discussion with the hopes that no one will connect the dots and recognize that the cries of Yale students of color are linked to the decimation of communities from East Baltimore to New Haven and connected to the racism that endures in American society.
Forty-five years ago, another Yale president, Kingman Brewster, opened up the gates of this University to the hundreds of people who flocked to New Haven to protest during the trial of Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins. President Brewster proclaimed at the time that he was dubious that the Panthers could get a fair trial anywhere in the U.S. and Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, remarked that Brewster was one man whose assassination would benefit our country.
Clearly Yale and its leadership haven’t always shied away from civic responsibility beyond the confines of the University.
Yale has a race problem, but it doesn’t stop outside the gates and granite of Yale. It just gets worse. We live in a city that bears the wounds of racism deep into the bone. I work in public health, so I count these scars in the rates of infectious and chronic diseases, but the toll can be enumerated in crime rates, unemployment or educational opportunity. What responsibility do we as a university have to the city we call home, to a nation where voting rights are under siege, millions of black men are in jail for nonviolent offenses and hundreds die at the hands of police across the country each year?
Over 25 years ago, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — an organization to which I belonged — invaded St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the Church’s stance on condoms. Was the demonstration a ham-handed one, violating others’ right to worship freely? Yes it perhaps was a mistake. But we were in the midst of an epidemic and then, just as now, people criticized us for what we did. They wanted to change the subject. But that one tactical error didn’t obviate the need to take on the Church and its deadly opposition to safer sex.
I hope the protesters at Yale continue their work. Everyone at Yale should feel safe. This isn’t a call for intellectual coddling, but to ensure you are free from having a gun pulled on you by police because you’re a young black man walking across campus, free from sexual harassment and assault in your dorm room, from having homophobic slurs shouted out in a locker room at Payne Whitney. Yale doesn’t have to be a place of political correctness, but it should be a place where we treat each other with basic human kindness and decency. When we don’t, it is right and just to say we deserve better.
But then let’s connect the dots, and stand up — starting with President Salovey — for more than just Yalies. Let’s stand up together for the millions of Americans who are paying with their lives, at the hands of a virus or a service revolver, or wasting away in a prison cell or on the unemployment line, simply due to the color of their skin.
Gregg Gonsalves is a 2011 graduate of Berkeley College. He is a lecturer and research scholar at the Yale Law School and a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of Public Health. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .