Anti-racist students and staff at Columbia University's Teachers College were outraged recently about a hangman's noose on a black professor's office door, and protested it as a "hate crime."
They also lambasted the climate on campus as "racist," chanting, "No diversity, no university!" One sign declared: "Protest Racist Lynch Rope Provocation."
Madonna Constantine, the professor, who's an expert on race, racial identity and multiculturalism, was catapulted to instant fame. She was interviewed on TV news shows because she would "not be silenced" or cowed by the noose -- a racist badge of intimidation directed at the black community.
Although she was warned in advance by an eagle-eyed colleague about the noose and did not happen upon it when entering her office, Constantine was nonetheless shocked, hurt and, she says, "embarrassed" by it.
I've never found a noose on my office door, but if I had, I would have handled it differently -- and not because it wouldn't have been a startling discovery. Had someone told me in advance about such a thing on my door, I would have told them to toss it where it belongs, in the trash. Had I come upon it on my own, I would have done the tossing myself. Symbols don't scare me. And they should not, in this day and age, frighten or intimidate any black person, much less an expert on race and racial identity.
Had I been a professor at Teachers College, I would have recoiled at, rather than encouraged, the taunts in headlines about how my elite university was "Poison Ivy." However one rates Columbia, it is not a racist institution, and New York City is not a remnant of the Old South, where mobs ruled and strung up blacks on a whim, where blacks had no protection in law, much less were feted on an Ivy League campus.
So, as a black American, I must dissent from the surge of racial histrionics and hysteria over the discovery of a hangman's noose at one of our campuses. I must dissent from the hard and fast conclusion about the incident as a "hate crime," even before the investigation is complete.
And I must question the motivations of those who've rushed to the judgment that this was not an isolated incident or even a prank by a malcontent or just an ordinary despicable individual.
As a New Yorker, I resent the stain of racism against my city and against one of the finest universities in our nation, even if the university officials can't defend their reputations for fear of offending angry blacks.
Indeed, if there is any racism on that campus, it does not take the form of mobs full of hate carrying ropes. It is the kind of racism that takes the form of paternalism directed at black students and black faculty -- the attitude that blacks are fragile and need special protections from the foul deeds of social misfits.
We blacks have gotten too soft and too sensitive over symbolic speech -- burning crosses, the "n" word and the hangman's noose. We are too quick to label a school "racist" and inhospitable because blacks are "only" 12 percent of the student body.
I more resent blacks who band with "anti-racist" whites to support hate speech codes and to cut off controversial speakers on campus than I could ever resent "offensive" speech from students or faculty who contend blacks have been quota-ed in and are beneficiaries of a double standard in admissions to Ivy League campuses.
That's because I am a race expert, and I know better. I know the truth about preferential treatment and the real history of lynchings in America -- where blacks, for no other crime than being visible and vocal, were strung up, beaten, bombed and torched. Whatever happened on Columbia's campus was no such hate crime, regardless of what the rope symbolizes.
It may shock the university officials, but blacks by and large are not impressed, much less reassured, when a college president -- as did Teachers College's Susan Furhman -- pledges racial tribute in the form of "more scholarships" and renewed efforts at diversity. Recruiting and retaining minority group students and staff are legitimate efforts in their own right, but illegitimate as a means for buying racial peace.
When will Columbia learn its lesson? What chances are there that it will ever learn not to overreact to overblown racial rhetoric when, in the face of challenges to its core values, even its race experts deem every hostile word or symbolic expression of ignorance as prima facie evidence of a culture and climate of racism fit for either censorship or punishment?
We blacks don't need any special protections or double standards of justice. And surely we can do without foolish comparisons of racist antics today on a liberal campus with that of an era when wanton racist violence directed against blacks was unbridled, and when American blacks, according to the law, had no rights to any, much less equal, protection of the laws.
Michael Meyers is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.
This post first appeared in Newsday.