I read with interest Professor Thomas Dalton’s article posted here on December 8th, 2019, “The ABC’s of the Alt-Right: A Guide for Students.” As has Professor Dalton, I have spent many years on American university campuses (I recently retired)—in my case, 42 years as a professor, plus an additional five years at the instructor rank early in my career. And as has Professor Dalton, I have written extensively on white racial matters. My experiences and analyses have led me to different conclusions and proposals than Professor Dalton expresses in his article, however. Different doesn’t necessarily mean better—readers will make that judgment. I hope what I set out here in response to Professor Dalton’s article will prompt reasoned dialogue and debate.
I’ve decided that the best way to get across my take on things is to comment on the last section of Professor Dalton’s article, which he entitles “How to Organize.” In this section, he addresses his university student audience (“I now shift my focus to you, the student reader, and your efforts to make a positive impact on this troubled world.”).
I’ll begin this rejoinder with a quote from my writings that gives a sense of my concept of what white university students are like:
I spent my working life around white university students, and of course I’m generalizing here, but based on my experience with them, their most central motivating impulse is to be characterized, by others and themselves, as decent and fair and just—which, by the way, is why the idea of social justice, prevalent in today’s universities, resonates so well with them. They don’t want to be great, they want to be good. And they don’t want to be on one end or the other of a social/political spectrum. Rather, they want to be secure and accepted and respected in the middle of wherever they are, in the dorm or in the community. They very much want to belong; they fear being marginalized. In sum, they want to be seen, and to see themselves, as OK people. Political correctness in universities—at least as it is pitched to them, as the way to be OK—is very attractive to them.1
If you are going to attempt to win over the hearts and minds of white university students, you had best take their basic posture, what they are really like, into account. Those on the left who have gotten themselves center stage in universities have done that extremely well. White advocates and activists could learn much from how they went about it.
Now to my comments on quotes (in italics) from the section of Professor Dalton’s article, How to Organize:
You have more power than you think. In a university, you are the paying customer.
It’s important to distinguish between collective and individual power. True, collectively students have power as paying customers, to use that term. But students don’t live their lives collectively; rather, they live their lives one at a time, as separate individuals. They live inside and direct the being that looks back at them in the mirror.
From the perspective of an individual student—let’s call her Mary Smith—she’s not a paying customer. Mary’s application was accepted by the university and she feels really good about that, and her parents are proud of her for getting admitted; they drove her to campus just before classes started and helped her move things into her dorm room, and they met her roommate, who seemed very nice. Being in the university setting is a big adventure for Mary, and it is a test to see if she can make a go of it on her own for the first time.
Yes, Mary could quit school and take her (or her parents’) tuition money with her. To the university, the loss of a single tuition wouldn’t matter; it would simply admit somebody on the waiting list, no problem. But to Mary, dropping out of school and perhaps transferring to another university would be a disruptive and, very possibly, upsetting, experience. It’s no small matter for her to move out of her dorm room or apartment, say goodbye to her friends, break off her connections with her favorite professors and courses, and to end her school activities. And what will this mean to her parents? They’ve been telling all the relatives how well Mary is doing in the university, and now she’s checking out. Will Mary see herself as letting her parents down? Will she look upon herself as a failure? You see where I’m going with this: it’s a more complicated matter than students being paying customers who can take their money elsewhere, and if we are going to do well by students, and by universities as a whole, we need to take that complexity into account. Read more