Please note that this article is the first part of a three-part series.
In the fall of 1962, James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran, moved into his dorm room at the University of Mississippi. He was escorted by the Mississippi Highway Patrol and guarded by 500 U.S. Marshals and an Army battalion from Fort Campbell. As news of Meredith’s presence spread, students and agitators gathered to protest. The segregationist mob grew to about 3,000, many of them armed. The mob quickly turned violent, attacking and overwhelming the marshals and troops guarding Meredith. By midnight, President Kennedy had to fly in two additional Army Battalions, a Navy medical unit, the U.S. Border Patrol and the Mississippi National Guard to control the riot. In all, 30,000 troops were called up. When the dust settled, two people were dead (one a journalist) and 300 injured, including 40 soldiers and 166 marshals.
This was only the latest battle in a war of treason still being waged by southern racists a century after the Emancipation Proclamation (which is why talk of reparations cannot be dismissed as dealing in ancient history, but that’s an issue for another day). Though retired from the U.S. Military, Meredith remained active in the home war. He was, in the literal sense of the term, a soldier. Ole Miss was his battlefield, and his mission there was “to destroy the system of white supremacy.” Meredith believed his enrollment at Ole Miss would provoke a violent reaction and would in turn cause the federal government to intervene and forcibly end its policy of segregation. He was right.
This chapter of Ole Miss’s history is important not least because it provides context for evaluating the present. It is to history, James Baldwin said, “that we owe our frames of reference,” and in the present, I’m struggling to find a frame of reference from which to reconcile Stanford Law School (SLS) with its description by the Racism Lives Here, Too (RLHT) campaign.
On February 6th, SLS faculty and students were greeted by a large banner reading “RACISM LIVES HERE, TOO.” RLHT brought to light a number of implicit and explicit incidents of racism at SLS. The catalyst for the movement was a report that a student had received anonymous hate mail, which included a picture of an “anchor baby.” This occurred only a few months after a white supremacist group, Identity Evropa, posted fliers around the law school. RLHT’s other grievances were more broad. RLHT reported, among other things, that their names are repeatedly mispronounced, their contributions in class are at times ignored and professors question legal protections for people of color. RLHT placed posters around the law school featuring comments meant to stand as examples of the ignorance and racism they’ve heard at SLS. RLHT’s interpretation of these incidents, expressed in various letters and op-eds, is unequivocal: Racism and bigotry are “flagrant” and “blatant,” and the forces of white supremacy are “pervasive” at Stanford. SLS is, according to a student posting on an SLS forum, “exactly, wholly and unquestionably a pervasively racist, white supremacist institution.” Many SLS students agreed with this sentiment.
Not surprisingly, the campaign exposed fissures at SLS detectable in how faculty responded — and didn’t respond — to the accusations. Before the law school gave a unified response, faculty of color published a response followed closely by a group of legal ethics professors. The letters praised the students’ courage and candor. Both acknowledged the presence of implicit bias and racism. Both were contrite. Yet neither affirmed, or for that matter denied, RLHT’s claim that the forces of racism and white supremacy pervade SLS. Admittedly, this is only part of the story. I’m certain members of faculty have expressed other opinions during closed meetings or in private conversation. Nevertheless, I can only reflect on what’s been said publicly: the statements SLS is willing to put its name to and stand behind.
Faculty are, I imagine, in a difficult position exactly because they are nothing like the bigots at Ole Miss circa 1962. They undoubtedly care deeply about equality and want to support their students, but to validate claims of pervasive racism and white supremacy would mark them as either complicit in the racism or too incompetent to prevent it. The faculty letters did acknowledge the existence of implicit racism and bias (the penance de jour, offering collective guilt without individual blame), but faced with the charge of perpetuating white supremacy, the faculty’s silence or artful avoidance is disquieting.
But then disquiet, an outsider’s discomfort and disorientation, is a sensation familiar to me. I often felt like an outsider, an alien at Stanford due to my unusual background. I didn’t grow up in the U.S. (I only moved here when I joined the Army but even then served mostly overseas). I never attended middle or high school (long story) and was usually the oldest kid in my community college classes. More critically, I was unfamiliar with the subset of political issues, mores and taboos that preoccupy students in the U.S. In all, I’m certain I had little in common with most at Stanford. Despite that, I can generally catch on to things quickly. Every so often, however, I have the surreal sense that everyone else knows something I don’t. This is one of those times.
This disorienting sensation is not caused by RHLT’s methods, which are quite constrained, nor by the spirit of protest and social consciousness driving student activism. There is, if anything, too much apathy in the world. And I should be clear: It’s good that RLHT raised the difficult issues it did. What disorients me is the language the student activists employed. The certainty and seriousness with which students now denounce SLS as a racist institution has an ominous, almost Orwellian (“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”) quality to it. I understand that Stanford is not a utopia free from the bigotry and racism in the world. Many incidents RLHT raised prove that. What I don’t understand is why SLS can’t address the incidents raised by RLHT but, at the same time, reject with some indignation accusations of pervasive racism and white supremacy.
Something, let us agree, has gone very wrong if one of the most progressive law schools filled with decent, liberal professors committed to diversity and equality stands — as easily as Ole Miss of 1962 — as an example of white supremacy.
White supremacy evokes memory of slavery, segregation, lynching — some of the ugliest and most violent chapters in our history. The Ole Miss that Meredith and 30,000 federal troops confronted earned its description as a white supremacist institution by proudly exemplifying the hateful attributes the term evokes. If SLS were a comparably racist institution, students would be morally justified — obligated even — to use extreme means to force out the corrupt authorities perpetuating white supremacy. But it’s fair to say that students at SLS are not confronting anything like the violent white supremacists that Meredith faced. Ole Miss of 1962 and Stanford of 2018 bear little if any resemblance to each other. Indeed, with respect to segregation, Stanford of 1891 and Ole Miss of 1962 bore little resemblance. Stanford’s first black student, Ernest Johnson, was admitted, along with President Hoover, into Stanford’s founding class without the need for federal troops (and after graduating with honors, Johnson was also admitted into the law school).
These differences matter. We can’t appreciate the great courage and sacrifice of Meredith’s resistance without them. If students insist, and I believe they’re sincere, that SLS is also a white supremacist institution, then something about our language and the significance of these words must have changed.
Perhaps desperate times call for desperate language.
— James Banker J.D. ’17
Contact James Banker at jbanker ‘at’ alumni.stanford.edu.