Stop treating black students as victims

After Ferguson, African-American students don't need special treatment.

Elsa Makouezi

Topics USA

The fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in New York City, after NYPD officers put him in a chokehold, have reignited a longstanding debate about police brutality towards African Americans in the US. One thing that this reignited debate does not need is the patronising pity of white middle-class students. Because ‘patronising’ is the only way to describe one particular student’s request for the postponement of exams for black students because of the supposedly inevitable distress caused by these recent deaths.

Della Kurzer–Zlotnick, a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, emailed her professor to ask if black students could have their exams postponed. She said her African-American fellow students were not ‘at all in a place to take their finals’ due to the ‘significant trauma’ caused by the deaths of Garner and Brown – trauma which has apparently been exacerbated by US grand jury decisions not to indict the cops involved. Kurzer–Zlotnick argued that, as a white middle-class person, she has the ‘privilege’ to remove herself from this situation and will be able to pass her exams. Following her professor’s simple and unequivocal ‘No’ to her request, Kurzer–Zlotnick posted the email correspondence online, prompting widespread media coverage.

But Kurzer–Zlotnick’s request is not a one-off. In fact, it followed a petition from Oberlin College students in which they asked for the college grading system to be adjusted for black students following the deaths of Garner and Brown. Elsewhere, Columbia University law students also asked for students who have been distressed by the police-related deaths to be able to postpone their exams. In a blog post, the Coalition at Columbia Law stated: ‘We have been traumatised over and again by the devaluation of black and brown lives. We are falling apart.’

In their attempt to speak on behalf of all black students, these requests represent a patronising response to issues that have divided the US. They suggest that black students, by virtue of having the same skin colour as Garner and Brown, will have been so traumatised that they simply won’t be able to cope with college exams. They suggest, in short, that black students are especially weak and vulnerable.

Moreover, such responses only further racialise the debate about police brutality. They present it solely as a black problem, which affects only black people and which has to be dealt with separately by black people. But as the chants in Ferguson suggested, ‘Fergusons’s Hell is America’s Hell’. Although the victims of the shootings were black, addressing the issue of police brutality and social injustice will require action and effort from all sections of society.

Claiming that students will be unable to cope with their college courses due to race-specific trauma will not help anyone. It will only divide and patronise. Students asking for black students to be given an easier ride at college will do nothing to deal with African Americans’ distrust towards the police or the problems many of them still face. In fact, it only makes things worse: it suggests that black Americans really are substantially different to white Americans, and should therefore be treated differently. This approach undermines the efforts of the civil-rights campaigners of the 1960s who fought for black students, such as political activist James Meredith, to be admitted to universities in the first place – on the grounds that they were just as capable as white students. Instead, asking for colleges to treat black students differently at exam time perpetuates the idea that African Americans are not quite as capable as white students. And it suggests that African Americans should be treated, above all, as victims. And that certainly doesn’t do African Americans any favours.

Elsa Makouezi is editorial assistant at spiked.

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Topics USA