Intellectual discussion in America used to be choked with fear of academic and political retaliation. During the Red Scare, new ideas that ran contrary to “conventional wisdom” were dismissed and the mischaracterization of formerly respected thinkers ruined and ended careers.
As one of the traditional societal bastions of free thought and discourse, the college campus especially felt the stifling effects of this paranoia. This time was the Red Scare, a period of hushed political dialogue in the 1940s and ‘50s. Unfortunately, the Red Scare has not been the only time that America has seen fear and hyperbole lead to paranoia, hushed discourse, and intellectual torpor. That time is also now. The scene described above does not only characterize a bygone period relegated to American history textbooks.
In many ways, it also characterizes the state of racial dialogue on today’s university campuses. Like political discussion five decades ago, discussion of race on college campuses today largely consists of like-minded intellectuals each competing to lay claim to an ever more rigid orthodoxy; note that every time Northwestern witnesses a racial controversy, the same professors and student group leaders appear to discuss its causes and consequences. This timid, uncreative, and ultimately stale dialogue has resulted from individuals’ fears of being branded a racist in much the same way that fears of being branded a Communist led to intellectual stagnancy during the Red Scare.
Obviously, the 1950s’ saw suppression of political speech which was far, far more chilling and restrictive than the suppression of any controversial speech in modern-day America. Today, we have the legal right to say largely whatever we like. Regardless of how unpopular, extreme or even abhorrent the statement, few people are thrown in jail or traipsed before a Congressional panel simply because of something they say.
As an example: Marxist, Trotskyist, paleo-libertarian, Leninist, Communist, or any of a plethora of other political ideologies can be found at university campuses across America. Arising out of this diverse political ecosystem is a dialogue characterized by a willingness to debate and consider other positions. The interesting and innovative thinking this dialogue has inspired — occurring at Northwestern and other universities across the country — is precisely what will be required to face the difficult political challenges of the twenty-first century.
The problem with discussions of race today is that fear of social and academic opprobrium keeps many from engaging in a dialogue with those who might disagree with them. This lack of oppositional participants that has led to a pallid and unproductive racial dialogue. While fear of opprobrium is justified, in just the past few years Americans have witnessed major political leaders receive national tongue-lashings, fervid calls for resignation and — for some of them — the loss of office and stature for making controversial or inarticulate remarks.
To name just two, Former Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro resigned from her position in Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign after saying that Barack Obama’s race may have worked to his political advantage and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently faced scathing criticism and calls for resignation for candidly suggesting something that a reasonable person might find to be true.
For those who witness these controversies and the subsequent recriminations, the inevitable consequence is a reticence to even approaching discussions of race relations. In the 1950s, thinkers whose political views had any discernible hint of collectivism had every reason to fear being branded a “Communist sympathizer.” Likewise, those who hold heterodox views on race (or simply those who doubt their own abilities of articulation) have reason to fear being branded a racist. In an atmosphere such as this — characterized by the fear of allegations of racism — individuals understandably remove themselves from discussion of race.
Although the Cold War fears of Communism overestimated its danger and its ubiquity, they were grounded in reality. There were, in fact, actual Communist plots to engage in espionage and even the overthrow of the U.S. government. The problem was not that the anti-Communists fabricated fears of a dangerous American Communist presence. Communist agents represented a real danger to American security.
Rather, the problem was that the term “Communist” was conflated to include harmless liberal and left-leaning entertainers and academics as well as actual, dangerous anti-government operatives. Similarly, racism is a real, dangerous problem that poisons American civil society and discourse to this day. The dangers and consequences of racism should not be overlooked or understated. There are times when racism needs to be identified and confronted.
However, when racism can mean nearly anything, its significance dwindles to nearly nothing. When the term is conflated to include inarticulate politicians and excessively candid thinkers, it does a disservice to all Americans and especially those who have experienced real prejudice and discrimination. When the stakes of a dialogue are raised from being merely failure at persuasion — as in discussions about politics — to possibly receiving a label of social and academic derision, many will decline to participate at all. And as discussion stagnates, it critically debilitates a community’s ability to address issues of race.