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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Free Speech Movement and the Unfinished Work of Civil Rights at UC Berkeley

by Leigh Raiford, UC Berkeley
with thanks to Michael Cohen and Nzingha Dugas
Photo credit: Harvey Richards
2nd of 5 talks from The Operation of the Machine panel, UC Berkeley October 1, introduced by Prof. Colleen Lye

Fifty years ago today, Jack Weinberg, a student activist, set up a table outside of Sproul Hall in direct defiance of the campus ban on political speech.  What followed is of course well-known: a campus police car drove into the middle of the plaza to arrest Weinberg, students surrounded the vehicle and occupied Sproul Plaza for the next 33 hours, Marios Savio climbed atop the car and gave a powerful speech….  And the Free Speech Movement was born.

What perhaps is not so well-known about this moment is that Jack Weinberg was the head of UC Berkeley’s CORE chapter.  CORE—the Congress of Racial Equality—was a frontline civil rights organization, that along with SNCC—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—had organized the massive black voter registration and education effort in Mississippi that year, known as Freedom Summer.  Weinberg, Savio, and numerous other campus activists had joined more than 800 other students from around the nation, mostly white, mostly Northern, and they lived, worked, and organized side by side with Southern African Americans against the Jim Crow system of racial apartheid.  These volunteers witnessed and experienced firsthand the violence and terror that maintained Jim Crow: the murder of four summer volunteers by Klansmen, the more than eighty people—including Savio—beaten by police as well as citizens, the hundreds arrested, and the bombing of scores of homes, businesses and churches.

When they returned to campus in the Fall of 1964, galvanized and also sobered by their experiences, they were eager to continue the struggle and to recruit others to join in the fight for racial justice.  But instead they found an administration that, in Savio’s words, was “out of touch.” 

Here [Berkeley and Cal campus] was one of the main outlets in the free part of the country…for recruiting people to go down there [to the South, and it seemed outrageous] that the University would presume to cut this off…because [the southern freedom struggle] was the most important thing going on in the country.  If the university could throttle politics on the campus, then in the spirit of “Which Side Are You On?’ they are saying… ‘we are on the same side as the state of Mississippi.’… It would be shameful not to stand up…

--stand up against UC’s ban on free speech and more specifically on what Savio biographer Robert Cohen has rightly labeled “the University’s attempt to disable the student arm of the civil rights movement" (pp 76-77).

I begin my comments here because I want to remind us that the legacy of the Free Speech Movement is the legacy of Freedom Summer; that the Free Speech Movement and Civil Rights are inseparable, and that the Free Speech Movement could not have happened without student commitment to issues of social justice beyond the campus.

So, Fifty years later, where are we now?  What is the legacy not just of free speech on campus, but of Civil Rights, integration and racial justice at UC Berkeley?

It is in an inescapable truth that since the passage of Proposition 209, the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative that ended affirmative action in the state, the University of California has failed the legacy of the Free Speech Movement.  Though we give lip service to diversity, more as a comforting image and corporate commodity, the messy work of a true diversity is no longer a priority at this university.  In the year after Prop 209’s passage, diversity at UC Berkeley completely collapsed, reducing the numbers of students of color by more than half in a single year.

For the last 18 years, the black student population has hovered at 3%, the Latino/Latina student population at about 11%, the Native American student population at about one half of one percent--in a state in which these groups make up 7%, 40% and 1.5% of the population respectively.  Eighteen years.  Prop 209 is old enough to enter Cal’s freshman class.  What that means is that these numbers – evidence of an American legacy of racism and discrimination in education -- are seen no longer as constituting a Crisis.  But like the shocking rise of tuition, this situation has become the New Normal.  We can no longer delude ourselves into believing that the University has the will or commitment or imagination to honor the civil rights legacies of the Free Speech Movement, namely representation and integration.  It has, instead, fallen silent.

What are the ways in which we see this complacency manifest?

If we look to the 2014 UC Office of the President Campus Climate Report, we see that students of color, and African American students in particular, reported the lowest feelings of respect on campus.  This is something that those of us who work with students of color hear everyday and didn’t necessarily need a report to confirm. It is easy to see in terms of a persistently hostile racial climate, micro (and macro) aggressions both within and outside of the classroom, and general feelings of anti-blackness.  These include reported incidents of the hanging of nooses across from African American theme dorms and the racial profiling of students of color by campus police. 

The ongoing rise of tuition makes it difficult for all but the wealthiest and the very poor to attend UC, when we know that class divisions are very much articulated via racial divisions.

We also see the outsourcing of recruitment and retention work to the students themselves--work that the University itself is no longer willing or able to take on.

And we can also point to the fact that I am here, in part as a token, one of less than twenty black women faculty on a campus of more than 1400. 

But I want to speak specifically to two ways in which the campus’ failure to address the ongoing diversity crisis constitutes a violation of free speech.

That students of color constitute such a tiny minority on this campus squelches their freedom of speech at a most basic level. With such low numbers, students of color take on and bear an incredible burden of representation.

In most of the classrooms on this campus, students of color find themselves the only one of their kind in the room.  And when the subject of race comes up—you know, Ferguson, or immigration or President Obama for that matter—they are looked to, by professor and students alike, to act as expert and representative for their race, to stand in for their group, effectively to stand in for all those who have been excluded from campus.  This incredible burden of representation has the effect of silencing students of color, of further isolating and marginalizing them. 

Our new Executive Vice Chancellor Claude Steele has termed the associated fear “stereotype threat,” by which he means an anxiety that one will confirm or conform to all the degrading dehumanizing stereotypes held about one’s group.  A hundred years ago, WEB Du Boiscalled this problem “double consciousness,” the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of always measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks along with amused contempt and pity.” And yet, the Development Office continues to use the silent images of these marginalized students —to trade on and sell their difference—as part of the “Thanks to Berkeley” capital fundraising campaign on banners all over campus in numbers disproportionate to their actual demographic.

The second example I want to cite is in light of the Task Force on Academics and Athletics’ report released last week.  In conversations with student athletes, a number of them have told me and other faculty that they are instructed by coaches and other athletic staff “not to do anything” which might jeopardize their eligibility.  This includes participation in student protest or political activity.  Now of course there is no written policy, but former members of revenue-generating sports teams (football, basketball) as well as other (non-revenue, Olympic or intercollegiate) teams have for years expressed their feeling of being silenced.  For black student athletes and for the black student population on campus, this has deep impact.  The University cynically uses alternative admission standards for student athletes and then uses these increased numbers of black students to pad already dismal diversity numbers.  By placing unspoken restrictions on the free speech of student athletes as a tacit condition of their eligibility, the university effectively isolates these students from the larger black student body, further marginalizing an already diminished population.  The cost of playing Cal sports while black is silence.

I want to conclude by returning to Mario Savio and the legacy of the movement Savio spent the Spring of 1964 protesting discriminatory hiring practices in San Francisco hotels.  He spent the summer of 1964 living and organizing against racial injustice in the Deep South.  His was an identity formed in community, a coming to self through working alongside others for the betterment of society.  Savio’s legacy in part is one in which we are reminded that to be our best selves, to create the kind of University community we aspire to, we must speak up and make space for the least visible and most silenced members of our campus.  This includes following up on the progressive recommendations of the Task Force on Academics and Athletics, continuing to fight for tuition reduction, and advocating for a more racially diverse campus.  What we remember and celebrate here is Mario Savio standing on a cop car speaking eloquently about fighting the machine.  What we need to remember is that it was the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for racial justice that gave Savio his voice and his community.


California Policy Issues said...
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Michael Meranze said...
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Anonymous said...

So athletes feel they're being silenced? The reality is they represent the university as team members.

I, as a state employee, may freely speak as longer as I do not implicate my employer. In other words, I can not imply that I'm speaking on behalf of the state when I voice my views. If I can't why should Cal athletes be treated differently?

Chris Newfield said...

Prof. Laiford's point is that student athletes don't have your right, Anonymous, to speak on their own behalf. if they participate in a protest against tuition hikes or against the leasing of university property to for-profit businesses, etc. etc. they can lose their eligibility--even when they make very clear that they are not representing Cal but only their own views.

Anonymous said...

Chris, we all make choices. If they want to protest, then they need not represent the university as a member of one of its intercollegiate teams.

Chris Newfield said...

No one in the United States or anywhere else for that matter should be asked to give up their free speech rights as a condition for doing X. There are special limited conditions where confidentiality and related issues apply. But what entitles Cal Sports or Microsoft or Chevron et al to nullify the speech rights as a private citizen of someone in their organization?

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