As the November 2015 student uprising recedes from memory into history, how will future generations remember the episode?
The most significant impact of the uprising is that it placed race at the center of campus conversation. On the afternoon of Nov. 4, Jonathan Holloway, the first black dean of Yale College, walked to the New Haven Public Library to give a talk on reading W. E. B. Du Bois in a post-racial age.
But by the following afternoon, it became clear our age wasn’t so post-racial. For hours, students of color surrounded Holloway on Cross Campus, describing to him the marginalization they experienced at the University. In the days that followed, painful but necessary conversations unfolded — in dining halls as in cultural centers, on social media as in the pages of the News.
Of course, race had always been on the minds of particular subsets of Yale — the cultural center communities and the American studies majors, for instance. But the uprising jolted a generation which had come of age in the hopeful liberalism of the Obama era. For better or for worse, everyone was now speaking a critical vocabulary of race; “intersectionality” and “appropriation” had entered the mainstream lexicon.
To be sure, students held widely diverging views on these issues. In April 2016, 55 percent of all students — and 65 percent of black students — believed Calhoun College should be renamed, compared to 48 percent in September 2015, according to a survey by the News. A clear majority, but hardly evidence of homogeneity as portrayed by the right-wing press.
Yet what was different after the uprising was that no one could claim to be an informed University citizen without engaging with questions of race and inclusion. To that extent, the protests were first and foremost educational.
For students of color, in particular, the uprising was a consciousness-raising moment, as they came to see personal slights and indignities as part of a structural racism. The media focused on Halloween costumes and a “white girls only” remark, but students articulated so many more grievances: police who disproportionately asked black students for their IDs as they went about their business. Professors who made assumptions about students’ abilities on the basis of skin color. A campus newspaper that often “failed to include the voices that were most critical to the stories [it] needed to tell.”
And, while Halloween costumes and a fraternity party were the proximal causes of the uprising, student discontent was a long time in the making. At Founder’s Day in October 2015, a large poster on a Cross Campus bulletin board decried the lack of faculty diversity in light of recent departures of high-profile faculty of color. And in January of that year, a black student had been detained at gunpoint as he left a library, evoking national debates about police brutality and implicit bias.
For the most part, the events of November 2015 were respectful, but exhausting and emotional. The most drastic possibilities, like a sit-in at the Yale College Dean’s Office, never materialized. Yes, there were moments of excess, but internet culture blew them out of proportion.
Were one or two students spit on as they left a Buckley Program conference? Probably and lamentably, even if a YCDO investigation proved inconclusive. But incivilities like spitting were not widespread. As sociologist Jerry Lembcke documents in his book “The Spitting Image,” urban legends — like the idea that Vietnam veterans were “spat upon” by antiwar protestors — can circulate in the popular imagination, even if the actual evidence is tenuous. Future historians will thus have to distinguish between reality and specter.
Almost a year to the day after the March of Resilience, Yalies witnessed the election of President Donald Trump. From that vantage point, the stakes of November 2015 seemed so much lower. Still, it would be a mistake to diminish the importance of the uprising. Just as the student protests of the 1960s prompted the conservative backlash of the 1970s but nonetheless forged the world we now inhabit, the uprising will have an enduring legacy.
Most promisingly, the events of both Novembers have heightened civic engagement among Yalies. Even prospective students are consciously thinking of issues of diversity; interest in public interest fellowships is at an all-time high. Among students in employment post-graduation, 26 percent of the class of 2016 worked for a nonprofit, compared to 21 percent of the class of 2013 per the Office of Career Strategy.
To be sure, there are legitimate criticisms of the uprising of November 2015. While no one was prevented from or sanctioned for speaking, there was possibly a moment of tunnel vision, where the range of socially acceptable views temporarily narrowed.
But one does not have to agree with every policy prescription of the Next Yale movement, or ignore concerns about free speech, to recognize the truth revealed by the uprising. It’s the proposition that every student deserves full citizenship at Yale — an ideal we must jealously guard and zealously pursue.
Jun Yan Chua is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at email@example.com.