Dear Black College Students:
There’s much I admire about the purpose of the demonstrations and protests you and your allies among other students and faculty have waged to awaken some colleges and universities to the significant racial problems undermining the sense of community on your campuses.
But I have to say there’s one general demand I’d advise you to put aside – the demand for “safe space.”
Not because it isn’t a legitimate sentiment. Of course, the search for a place of psychological comfort and physical safety is a fundamental human impulse. I say drop it because the intractable reality in America is that “safe space” is for White people.
I’m sure you know that by now. You couldn’t have gotten to college without being aware of this awful American tradition.
You know that the British colonial settlement and then the new “United States” were created as a safe space for Whites only. Over time, Whites decimated the First Nations’ peoples and forced them farther and farther west in order to grab increasing chunks of land for White governmental and private ownership.
You know the purpose of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was to establish an enormously lucrative and psychologically satisfying safe space – Negro Slavery – for the White majority to validate its fantasies of individual and racial superiority. It’s no coincidence that the blackface minstrelsy that some Whites resort to today originated in the era when Whites were scratching for all sorts of reasons to justify their inhumanity.
Ever inventive, after the Civil War, the White majority created de jure and de facto systems of discrimination to establish new versions of racial safe space fit for the industrial age. This allowed WASPs and the floodtide of White-ethnic immigrants to implement during the next century a division of the resources of the burgeoning American society that left Americans of color at the bottom of the ladder of social and economic mobility.
The result was an America full of safe spaces for Whites: segregated urban neighborhoods and schools; segregated suburbs; de jure segregated White colleges and universities in the South, de facto ones in the North; segregated trade unions and professional associations, and all sorts of jobs reserved for Whites, from those in police and fire departments to those in civil service and corporate bureaucracies. Even those two mythic pillars of American society – the military and major league baseball – were ferociously guarded safe spaces for Whites until after World War II.
As I say, I know you understand this. As one who went to college in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement’s great legislative victories in the 1960s, I’m well aware of the initial shock one feels at discovering how much remains to be done on the racial- and social-justice front. I’m also aware that many Whites who denigrate your demand for safe-space do so from the safe spaces of their near- or lily-White neighborhoods, workplaces and social networks. They tell you to “look away” from racist insults, or, worse, to try to, in effect, prove your humanity to people who want to hurt you. That’s something they never have to do because the society remains firmly structured to protect their safe-spaces.
Yours? Not so much. Not when police racial profiling remains widespread and police routinely brutalize Blacks and Hispanics for supposedly violating the most trivial traffic infractions. Not when the Supreme Court has – once again – sanctioned the racist movement to deprive Black Americans (and others who tend to vote for the Democratic Party) of their right to vote. Not when the impeccably-ivied educational credentials of both the first Black president and first lady of the United States and the first Latina Supreme Court Justice are denigrated by so-called respectable Whites.
Nonetheless, I say, take note of the hypocrisy, but drop the demand for safe space. “Get over it,” as your detractors say; but not for the reasons they say.
Instead, accept that there never has been safe space for any Americans of color in this land. Accept that your responsibility is to follow the strategy most dramatically illustrated by the Black freedom struggle: Embrace the reality that what your American heritage involves is wedding the normal activities of human existence to a continual awareness of the need to resist the second-class status which, in all its guises, some Whites still want to consign Americans of color to.
Let that awareness make you more perceptive about your surroundings and more determined to succeed personally and to move the movement for social justice forward in whatever ways you can. If you do that, I guarantee you’ll have forged in yourself and in the society at large “space” that is impervious to the attacks of people whose words and actions prove they’re afraid of you.
With best wishes!
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com