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NPR's Code Switch Team Explores Political Correctness On College Campuses


Now we're going to talk about "The Long, Necessary History Of Whiny Black Protesters At College." That is the title of a new piece by NPR's Gene Demby for our Code Switch blog. He's been thinking about the issue of political correctness on college campuses. This issue has gotten people talking for months as protests have taken hold at schools across the country.

Hey Gene.


SHAPIRO: OK, as we begin, I want to play a piece of tape from our program last month. This is New York magazine political columnist, Jonathan Chait, who you actually mention in the piece...

DEMBY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...And here he's talking about the definition of what is political correctness. He argues it's been stretched too far.


JONATHAN CHAIT: I would define political correctness as a new ideology that is completely intolerant of dissent on issues relating to race and gender. So it's an illiberal kind of politics that does not grant any political legitimacy to criticism on identity issues.

SHAPIRO: This critique comes from many more people than just Jonathan Chait.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: There are a lot of people out there calling these protestors whiny, entitled, coddled. What is your take on this?

DEMBY: So again, we should remember that whenever student protest movements pop up, that's what older people say. They say that the students on campus are sort of - are entitled. They're asking for too much, especially black student protesters. What was really fascinating writing this story was we realized how much the language that black student protesters were using back in, like, the '60s that sounded almost identical to the language that black student protesters are using today.

SHAPIRO: You talk about seeking safe space...

DEMBY: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...even if they didn't use that term, funding for minority programs...

DEMBY: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...Diversity of faculty - the same things people have been requesting for decades.

DEMBY: Absolutely. One difference I think - and I think this is the one of the things that trips up older people is the focus on things like micro-aggressions, which are sort of smaller, more mundane, tossed-off statements that people feel is antagonizing.

SHAPIRO: One of the things you point out in this piece is that a lot of the older people making these criticisms are themselves black and went through the same kinds of experiences that these students today are complaining about. Is this just an attitude of, it made me tougher, I endured it, you should be able to do the same?

DEMBY: A lot of it is that. I mean, a lot of people feel like, I've survived these things. I developed these calluses. And the stuff that you are going through is stuff that will only get more complicated when you leave college campuses. So you have to learn to navigate these things. Of course, that sort of ignores that what kids are trying to do is actually fix these things. A friend of mine runs the black alumni group at a big mid-western college. And what she says is that there's a really thin line between telling people that, hey, you're going to have to learn to navigate this stuff, navigate racial slights, navigate racism. But there's a thin line between telling someone you have to navigate that stuff and that racism is a thing you have to tolerate.

SHAPIRO: There's an interesting point you make in this piece that because of demographics, you say these kinds of clashes on college campuses right now are inevitable. Explain what you mean by that.

DEMBY: So Americans remain really broadly segregated, right? We know that American high schools - high schools that are producing these college students are really, really segregated, increasingly segregated. But we also know that over the last 25, 30 years, according to Pew, the number of black and Latino students at American colleges have skyrocketed. So what you're having is, for the first time, people are living in shared spaces, and probably for the only time in their lives if you think about it. They're living in shared spaces, and so they're trying to fight over the rules of that shared space. They're trying to lay out the rules of engagement in these spaces. But they're 19-year-olds, so sometimes that's going to be heavy-handed and sometimes it's going to be ham-handed and sometimes it's going to be ill-conceived. But what they're trying to do is to make diversity work in a real way and not in just an abstract way.

SHAPIRO: And you also point that this is a group of students who grew up in the context of the Occupy movement. They're now at school in the moment that Blacks Lives Matter protests are happening across the country. This is hardly existing in a vacuum.

DEMBY: Yeah, there's a larger sort of generational momentum around this kind of activism. People are shouting out each other's movements. They feel like they're a part of these things. And so a lot of these protests, what's fascinating about them is they're becoming national news. Because of the existence of social media, there's so many ways for people to sort of broadcast these things. And what you're doing when you do something like talk about micro-aggressions on your college campus is you're trying to set up like, hey, these are the things that I would hope that you would not say to me, right? Or, these are the ways I would hope you would engage me that are more respectful. And if those things are contested, it should be expected. I mean, because we're talking about people who are working these things out in real life. It's going to be messy. Diversity is messy necessarily, but that's what is happening.

SHAPIRO: Gene Demby's latest piece for NPR's Code Switch blog is "The Long, Necessary History Of Whiny Black Protesters At College."

Thanks Gene.

DEMBY: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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