On April 22, 2018, Miki Cammarata, the Vice President for Student Development at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, released an email. Cammarata condemned a social media video featuring a William Paterson student, Jasmine Barkley. Cammarata called Barkley’s comments “abhorrent and racially charged.” “We are disgusted,” Cammarata wrote. Barkley’s statement “does not reflect our values.” “University staff are investigating.”
In the video, Jasmine Barkley asks, “Is it appropriate for me to say the word n—–, if it is in the lyrics of a song and I’m singing the lyrics, or is it not appropriate for me to say n—–? Let me know.” Barkley’s video is eleven seconds long.
A Twitter user who self-identifies as “Seun the Activist, Son of the Most High,” aka Seun Babalola, tweeted the video at 8:57 a.m. on April 22. Cammarata’s response appeared three hours later. Also on April 22, Nicole DeFeo, International Executive Director of Delta Phi Epsilon, Barkley’s sorority, promised “swift, decisive action.” In 1984-style language, Barkley was “disaffiliated immediately.”
On Monday, April 23, the Beacon, the William Paterson school newspaper, posted an open letter from Barkley. “I am not a racist. I believe in equality … I posed a controversial question.” Barkley quoted TV personality Lenard McKelvey, aka Charlamagne Tha God.
McKelvey, in a 2013 interview, said, “Until we stop using the word n—–, we can’t get mad at nobody else for using the word … If something’s bad, it’s bad, period. It can’t be good when I do it and bad when you do it … If you really want to make a stand against the n-word, stop using it. Teach people how to treat you. People are going to treat you how you treat yourself.” Protesting when whites use the n-word is hypocritical, he said. If Malcolm X or Martin Luther King returned, they would not be shocked at whites using the n-word; they’d be shocked at blacks using the n-word. “Is this what we died and marched for? Is this what we got beat with sticks and had dogs sicced and got sprayed with hoses for y’all to be walking around and carrying yourselves like this?”
“Freaky Friday,” the song Barkley’s friend was singing along to, does indeed contain the n-word, repeated eleven times. “Freaky Friday,” as do many popular rap and hip hop songs, refers to women as “bitch,” including the singer’s mother, and “hos,” or whores. It also refers to “pussies.” In the video, nearly naked white women advertise the black singer’s worth by writhing against him. “Freaky Friday” includes graphic references to male anatomy, for example, “his dick staying perched up on his balls.” The f-word is repeated ten times.
“Freaky Friday” depicts a nerdy Jewish man desperately wishing that he could be changed into a cool, sexy, powerful black man. “Freaky Friday’s” creator, Lil Dicky, was born David Andrew Burd. Burd telegraphs his acknowledgement of his whiteness and inadequacy through his stage name, a reference to his miniature, white penis. An accommodating Chinese man – a stereotypical “inscrutable Oriental” – transforms Lil Dicky into his desired ideal: a black rap star. In his song, Burd specifically chooses to become Chris Brown, notorious for beating Rhianna.
After his magical transformation, Burd is able to dance and play basketball. He suddenly owns a gun and he beats people. When he is white, Burd looks into his pants and is disappointed. After he becomes black, he sings, “It’s my dream dick.” He takes a picture. “Snap a flick of my junk. My dick is trending on Twitter.”
Burd/Brown certifies his triumphant assumption of black identity by being permitted to use the n-word, just as black people frequently do, both in real life and in the lyrics of songs. Burd’s use of the word is the seal of his assumption of superior, black identity. Everyone knows that whites are forbidden to use the word.
“Freaky Friday” is not the only recent cultural product to depict inferior whites craving to inhabit superior black bodies. The Academy-Award-winning film “Get Out” features the same theme.
“Freaky Friday” exemplifies the curse that haunts black youth, as described by Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard. Some whites want blacks to be violent, hypersexual, and good at dancing and sports, so that whites may vicariously live out their anti-social fantasies through black proxies. In his 2006 New York Times op-ed “A Poverty of Mind,” and his subsequent book, The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth, Patterson argues persuasively that black youth perform social dysfunction at least partly to gain approval from white “patrons.” These white patrons may buy drugs or applaud the “cool pose.” Patterson writes that the cool pose culture is “almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation’s best entertainers were black. Not only was living this subculture immensely fulfilling it also [provides] a great deal of respect from white youths.” “Freaky Friday” is just the latest manifestation of the toxic “cool pose” incarnation of minstrelsy. The Urban Dictionary defines a “wigger” as “A male Caucasian, usually born and raised in the suburbs, who displays a strong desire to emulate African American Hip Hop culture and style through … thug life.”
Seun the Activist, William Paterson University, and an internet boiling over with mutually stoked, huffy outrage didn’t protest “Freaky Friday”’s repeated use of the n-word, nor its depiction of blacks, whites, women and Chinese people as grotesque caricatures. The insta-mob targeted their pitchforks and torches at a girl who dared to ask why it isn’t okay to sing along with a song that has received almost 200,000,000 YouTube views since it was posted on March 15, 2018. Those prosecuting the show trial of Jasmine Barkley know what Chris Brown knew. It’s easier to take out your frustrations on one, lone girl.
On Friday, April 27, William Paterson University hosted a public forum addressing Barkley’s eleven-second video. April 27 was a rainy day in final exam and graduation season. The temperature barely broke fifty degrees. Even so, the forum was standing room only. About three hundred attended, most students, most African American. William Paterson administrators, three white, one black, occupied a table and podium in front of the room. About two dozen students spoke.
Anyone hoping for a provocative, nuanced debate on the value of the First Amendment, or an impassioned sermon on a community’s duty to avoid the scapegoating of one member, would be disappointed. Rather, what one heard was an outpouring of raw pain. Many shook as they spoke. Not a few sobbed openly. One insisted several times that she was suicidal.
“My black body is not safe,” they said. “How can they protect me when they’ve never lived like me?” they asked. One student said that someone had pointed a laser in her face, and the Residence Assistant to whom she reported this event declined to do anything because he did not witness it. A professor said she was stalked by a white student.
“I don’t know if you know anything about Newark,” said one student. After the 1967 Newark Riots, Newark lost much of its largely Jewish and Italian middle class. In 1996, Money magazine ranked Newark “The Most Dangerous City in the Nation.” It remains high crime. “Newark is unlike Wayne, NJ,” said the student. Wayne is almost 90% white. Street crime is not an issue. In Newark, the student insisted, “White cops constantly harass you. Your brothers might stab you in the back. I’m part of that life, but I came here for change. I didn’t want to be in the streets. It’s not something you choose.”
One student complained that when she told an advisor she wanted to major in black studies, the advisor warned her that that major might not provide post-graduation economic opportunity. “My passion doesn’t belong,” she said. Only black faculty, she insisted, have the necessary passion to guide her. Black faculty “provide the feeling we can’t find anywhere else.”
Another said, “I’m not supposed to make it past the age of 25 because of the society I live in.” Most black men die before age 25, he insisted. “Their skin gets them incarcerated or killed. A white person who makes it past the age of 25 might not have half as much to offer as someone black who was killed at 24. I truly don’t believe that you will do anything for us.”
An Asian-American student sobbed. She said that she had been well-treated by the counseling center, and it broke her heart to hear that black students receive inferior counseling.
Other comments included the following: “As a black woman on campus my dreams don’t feel safe.” “I feel stuck.” “White professors degrade me.” “To this day I am afraid to eat.” “This university dilutes my cultural experiences and expressions.” “People ask me why I’m an Asian studies major. I shouldn’t be faced with those questions.” “I’m afraid of white people.” “Free speech? Are you serious? You’ve got to be kidding me.” “People who are not of color simply cannot understand people of color. They cannot.” One student wanted Barkley’s former sorority expelled from campus. “I’ve been fooled. I see the game.” The Barkley video was “an atrocity.”
Another called the Barkley video a “debacle.” “Without students of color, William Paterson would be only a community college.” “I think it’s real cute how you have the black woman advisor appear for you.” This statement, a reference to the African American administrator who chaired the meeting, was met with a standing ovation. “You are exploiting people of color.”
Student demands included black psychologists, black faculty, black administrators, and a new building dedicated to black concerns.
The college president said that listening to the students was very painful. One administrator said he exemplified white male privilege. Another administrator said, “I feel responsible.” The students who responded to these administrators were unmoved. “We don’t believe you,” they said. “What will you do?” They demanded. “It’s blatantly obvious that you care only about PR!” one accused.
Three points are uncontestable.
First, these young people were howling from the depths of their being. Any compassionate person, and any patriotic person hoping for a strong America, would want to contribute to the alleviation of their pain.
Second, these students represent a national tragedy. A 2017 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study indicates that white and Asian-American students are twenty percent more likely to earn a college credential than black and Hispanic students. Black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend high schools with low academic performance. In Paterson, a city close to William Paterson University, in 2014, only nineteen students, out of 594 who took the SAT, were deemed “college-ready.” Just a few miles away, in majority-white Wayne, NJ, high school students score in the top 27.9% of New Jersey high schools. Nationwide, the achievement gap is all too real. African American students still lag behind in standardized test scores.
Third, these students’ comments painted a picture of powerlessness and pathos, of black students utterly vanquished by all-powerful, hostile, white opponents. They were imploring, almost begging, the three white and one black administrator to rescue them. At the same time, they were voicing no hope that rescue was forthcoming.
Anyone with eyes and ears would agree that these students are in pain. The question becomes, are they correct in their assessment of what caused their pain, and in prescribing identity-politics, liberal solutions? Conservative authors offer different, conservative, diagnoses and prescriptions.
In his book, White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, Shelby Steele describes a small moment that changed his life. He was a young, angry black man who had grown up under Jim Crow. He was leading just one of the 1960s protests that transformed America. He entered the office of Dr. McCabe, college president. Steele was smoking a cigarette. He couldn’t find an ashtray. His ashes fell to the president’s plush carpet. McCabe rose from his chair, as if to reprimand Steele. But Steele saw awareness, like a sunrise, cross McCabe’s face. If McCabe reprimanded Steele, McCabe would risk being called a racist. And he, McCabe, would lose status. So he did not reprimand Steele. Steele realized – from now on, white liberals will hold blacks to a lesser standard, not for the good of blacks, but for the good of white liberals. Dr. McCabe was in CYA mode. He would lower himself before Steele, but only temporarily. And his performance of self-abnegation was merely a facade to retain his hold on power. Perversely and counter-intuitively, white liberal guilt was just another way to maintain white power.
McCabe could have said to Steele what he would have said to any white student who behaved in an inappropriate manner in his office. “Don’t drop your ashes on my expensive carpet.” That would be a good message to hear. Dropping ashes on other people’s carpeting is not a good thing to do if you want to get ahead in life.
William Paterson administrators could have spoken as frankly to black students as they would have to white ones. “You are in pain and we care. You have made serious allegations. We will investigate.
“But let’s get real. You claim we can only oppress you. Within three hours of the video receiving any attention, we condemned it. We did not focus on the white student suffering demonization, or on why free speech is a value on university campuses, or on the merit of the question posed. We focused on you. That’s why we called this unprecedented meeting. You are not powerless. You are powerful. Acknowledge our commitment and don’t shut us out. Doing so denies reality and insults us.”
“I am the embodiment of white privilege” may be the right thing to say when one is in CYA mode, but powerful people assuming CYA mode does not help black students. What does? The same thing that helps white students. Fulfilling the teacher’s promise – “I will train you in the skills and disciplines you will use to conquer your roadblocks.” That message requires one to believe in oneself as a leader, regardless of one’s skin color, and to believe in standards as having universal value, regardless of the skin color of the student. That message requires the speaker to be willing to be disliked, even hated. A real teacher sometimes asks a student to confront truths from which the student would prefer to hide. That message requires an institution to have standards to judge a teacher. Is the teacher a prima donna, a bully, an aloof snob? A wind-vane who will contort to conform to popular trends and to receive positive student evaluations and uninterrupted paychecks? Or a true educator whose student will remember, ten years down the road, as some morsel of life is rendered easier, “I learned this skill from my professor”? When a university, inspired by leftist ideology, including identity politics, abandons standards, it abandons any hope of identifying real teachers or real student progress.
Students insisted that only black hires meet the needs of black students, yet they were contemptuous of the one black administrator there, suggesting that she was an Uncle Tom. Students should beware of unintended consequences. The mirror image of their position is that only white hires can meet white students’ needs. Heroes gave their lives to defeat racial separatism, manifest in Jim Crow and plummeting to diabolical depths in Nazism. We sacrifice too much to return to the premise that there are essential differences between us, and that only our own “_volk_” can meet our needs.
Manhattan Institute Fellow and Wall Street Journal editorial board member Jason L. Riley points up another weakness in the argument that only black faces in positions of power can alter the experience of black students. In his 2017 book, False Black Power, Riley takes on “ethnic identity politics and” the prioritization of “the integration of political institutions.” Appointing more black elites won’t solve root issues, Riley argues. Instead, African Americans would be better served through a push for cultural change. “The key to black economic advancement today is overcoming cultural handicaps, not attaining more political power.” “Political power can’t compensate for what is missing culturally.”
Riley quotes average people he interviewed in Harlem the day after Trump won the presidency. Most, Riley said, agreed that the skin color of the president wouldn’t change a thing. “A woman getting her hair done in a beauty salon” said to Riley, “‘I don’t think Trump is really thinking about black people’s problems … Even if he was, he can’t solve them. Obama couldn’t solve them even though he really wanted to, so Trump certainly can’t.’” In another encounter, “A minister sitting in front of his storefront church weighed in on the prevalence of inner-city street violence but concluded that ‘we know the president can’t do much about crime. It has to start at home with the families, the parents, the fathers.’” This is what Riley means by cultural rather than political change. The answer to the black students’ pain can’t be found through exclusive focus on the skin color of this or that power-holder; rather, they would be better served through focus on what’s happening around the dinner table. Obama’s presidency, Riley wrote, proved that “political power can’t compensate for what is missing culturally.”
Some will insist that African Americans can’t achieve because of what Riley calls a “white villainy” that disempowers blacks. Thus, an eleven-second video of a white girl asking about use of the n-word prompted two hours of black students talking about feeling afraid. Riley answers such protests with a slew of statistics. Riley writes about the astounding advance African Americans made in post-Civil-War America. He argues that this advance was superior to that of European peasants freed from serfdom under the czars in 1861, that is, close in time to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. “The very people who lived” under Jim Crow “would be baffled at the consensus among their descendants that whites’ biases rend us powerless to shape our destinies for the better.” Riley argues that the idea that blacks are paralyzed by white racism and that blacks require white liberals to rescue them from that racism is proven wrong by black accomplishments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Riley quotes Thomas Sowell, who argues that blacks rose faster before the Civil Rights Movement and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs than they did afterwards. “Despite a widespread tendency to see the rise of blacks out of poverty as due to the civil rights movement and government social programs of the 1960s, in reality the rise of blacks out of poverty was greater in the two decades preceding 1960 than the decades that followed.” This history of achievement, Riley argues, is suppressed. “Black people hear plenty about what they can’t achieve due to racism and very little about what they have achieved in the past notwithstanding brutal and sometimes lethal bigotry.”
In other words, blacks have proven that they don’t require white liberals to rescue them. Blacks can rescue themselves. The history of black achievement before the onset of big-government, white-liberal rescue programs, Riley suggests, is suppressed because that history of black achievement lowers the heroic profile of the white liberal rescuer. Sowell suggests another reason why this history of pre-1960s black achievement is obscured. Sowell writes that white liberals’ lowering of standards for blacks, their “euphoria of liberal non-judgmental notions,” and their “toxic message of victimhood” demonstrably hurt, not helped, black people. After the onset of mass government rescue programs under LBJ, murder rates went up and marriage rates went down.
The students are on a campus where all students are required to take courses in Diversity and Justice and Global Awareness. Most professors are liberal. The faculty, administration, and staff are diverse. The question is not whether or not these students are in pain; clearly they are. The question is whether white supremacy is the cause of their pain, and whether or not powerful campus officials telling them that they feel sorry or guilty or privileged will alleviate student pain.
Is it not possible that underperforming high schools’ failure adequately to prepare these young people for college-level academics and for future success is one source of pain? And is the solution not public mea _culpa_s, but rather for the university to redouble its efforts to do what universities were invented to do: rigorously to train and educate all students in objective and universally applicable canons of knowledge, values, and disciplines? Classical rhetoric offers values and practices necessary for universities to do the work they were created to do: free speech, dialogue, even with those whose ideas one assesses as abhorrent, and open debate of controversial matters. Ideas are not boogeymen that must be shoved under the mattress in order for bedtime to feel cozy. Wouldn’t the university better serve its students by inviting debate on the question posed in the eleven-second social media post? The ability to defeat, with knowledge and skilled rhetoric, what one reviles, if imparted to the sobbing students, would empower them for the rest of their lives. The university, at its best, would not demand of poor and minority students that they achieve their ends by displaying their wounds and reducing college presidents to tears. It would not rewrite the narrative synopsized by Riley and Sowell, a dynamic in which beneficent white liberals lower standards in order to “rescue” pathetic blacks. The university, at its best, would not demand that students be victims. The university, at its best, would arm students to be victors.
But, some will protest. You propose a model of the university that ignores students’ tears. No, I do not. Rather, it is other approaches that respond unhelpfully to students’ pain. The “Freaky Friday” video, the students’ complaints and demands, and white liberalism all practice the same essentialism. In all these products, blacks are essentially different. “Freaky Friday” features cool-pose blacks. Whites can be cool only after turning black. In the students’ demands, black students can never be served by white teachers. In essentialist pedagogy, black students are such tragic creatures that they can’t be expected to master the same subject matter as white and Asian students. All these essentialisms lie, cripple, and imprison.
As I listened to the students’ tales of woe, I recollected parallel stories. I thought of a professor who had been stalked by a threatening student. That professor’s boss was unmoved and unhelpful. I thought of a haughty professor who mocked a student in class because she is a Christian. She complained; nothing was done; she dropped the class and sacrificed her tuition dollars. I thought of a young man who hated the university because it forced him to take a course that denigrated his manhood, suggesting that all men are potential rapists. He told me that all he learned at school was how to fake it while seething in silent resentment. I thought of harried, overworked advisors who failed to tell students which classes they needed to take. These students found out after they thought they had graduated that they would receive no degree. I thought of one of my former students, tall, handsome, gifted, who died of a heroin overdose. I thought of an adjunct professor who was told by her boss, “Your evaluations are fantastic and I’d like to hire you full time but I can’t because my dean wants someone who is not of your ethnicity.”
I thought of those suicides for whom I pray: two of my mentors, one of whom worked at William Paterson, and several of my fellow adjunct professors, one of whom committed suicide just days before, on Tuesday, April 24, in Barbour’s Pond in West Paterson, NJ, hours before I arrived to hike around it.
Every parallel story I mention above features no black characters. White cops sometimes bully white students. White professors sometimes belittle white students. White counselors sometimes betray white students. The Ivory Tower sometimes destroys those with ivory skin. It would help, not hurt, the students at this gathering to realize that not all bad things that happen happen because of white supremacy. Universities are the factories where truth is manufactured. That manufacture is a blood sport. Competitions are ferocious, no less so because they are twisted and hidden. No skin color provides a Vibranium shield. Color provides no map to predator and prey, friend or foe. A student may not realize till decades later that that dreamy-eyed professor who insisted she was a tragic ethnic poster child, a powerless victim of history whose only hope lay in some future people’s revolution, was her worst enemy. Similarly, she may only later realize that the old fuddy duddy who insisted that she pronounce a-s-k as “ask” not “aks,” who barked at her for making excuses after skipping class or handing in late work, was her best friend. Addressing these truths tips too many sacred cows. So much easier to tar and feather a twenty-year-old who asks a question that lays bare too much hypocrisy, too many students sacrificed to too much expedient cowardice.
The university can best respond to human pain through universal, not particular, values: decency, respect, reliability, professionalism, compassion. It takes courage for a professor – of any skin color – to point out to a student – of any skin color – that a habit that works at home – from daisy dukes to sagged pants – won’t benefit their professional futures. It takes courage to say, “I’m older than you, and I know more about the world, and it will benefit you to listen to me on this one.” Insisting that standards, academic and moral, are colorblind, doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist. As Jason L. Riley has documented, black people can not only survive, but thrive, in spite of racism. That’s because black people are not powerless, and they don’t need white liberals in CYA mode to rescue them. The university can equip students to confront racism just as it can equip any student to deal with any roadblock: through resilience, compartmentalizing, humility, flexibility, determination, strategizing, and carefully chosen allies. The people of Poland, though white, are no strangers to hostile environments. Poles say “trzymaj sie.” Mavis Staples repeats those very words – “hold on” – fifty-one times in a Civil Rights song inspired by a Christian story about a Jewish man. Anyone, from any race, will benefit from remembering the song’s title: “Keep your eyes on the prize.”