Regent Mark Bernstein said the only thing worse than Spencer being on campus would be stopping him from being campus. “We could do the easy thing. Others have,” Bernstein said. “We could ban Richard Spencer. Everyone would celebrate. The board would be cheered. President Schlissel would be applauded. But we would be dancing on our own grave. And on our tomb stone will read: ‘Here lies the University of Michigan. Afraid to do the right and difficult thing, it compromised its commitment to the constitution and died failing to live up to the bedrock value of free expression that is essential to our mission as a great university (because bold and honest thought requires it).”
If sanctimonious multimillionaire Mark Bernstein’s name rings a bell, it’s either because you’ve seen his face on billboards on Interstate 94 (his family has made its fortune off “personal injury law”), or else because you recall that after he and his wife offered millions to the University of Michigan for the construction of a new Multicultural Center, he retracted the offer when told it would look bad for the university to name it “Bernstein-Bendit Hall.” (Free association: Regent Ron Weiser’s longterm work on behalf of the RNC has helped fertilize the beds for phenomena such as Trump and Spencer. A new College of Literature, Science, and the Arts building is now named in his honor.)
What is it about white men like this, with financial and institutional power, that makes them believe they have something important to say about anything, let alone this pseudoconcept called “free expression”? It’s their upbringings, as centered stakeholders in a generalized system of white American dominance, throughout which no sustenance has ever been elusive, and social power is as easy to wield—in every possible context—as a garden hose.
Why though would a liberal scion like Bernstein retract an offering of millions of dollars, money that theoretically would have benefited future students of color at University of Michigan, when he learned the Multicultural Center could not be named after him? As a white man of means, he’s reassured—by his family’s portfolio, but moreover by the system itself—that we others have an obligation to grant him focal space in perpetuity. This is White Power.
Bernstein is declaiming that Spencer’s got a right, enshrined in the Constitution, to come masterbate (no sic) in public space, like some Confederate Louis C.K., about “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” Why? Because the intellect of the affluent, white male is only enriched through competition, especially when there is no chance that harm will come to either party after each has argued his side. In other words: Bernstein feels he can hold his nose, sit down, and listen to Spencer spout garbage, because it’s garbage Bernstein himself will not ever have to dig through or out of for survival.
There’s just one hitch: because the United States is still a machine powered in part by the enslavement (incarceration/profitability/disposibility) of Black and Brown bodies, the First Amendment does not protect anyone’s right to stand at a public institution and argue for the death, removal, or disappearance of those bodies. We all know that in another, more just world, the Constitution will be revised to reflect this. Hate speech, when its objects are being killed daily by the ideology that fuels it, is not protected speech; instead, it’s speech we’re obligated by love to combat.
Which means that it will continue to fall on our shoulders—and never from the mouths of affluent white men like Mark Bernstein, Mark Schlissel, Donald Trump, and Christopher Taylor—to not only remind our communities that hate speech is not free speech, and that “free speech,” for the marginalized of America, has always been a myth, but also to use our own bodies as a blockade against every single advocate of ethnic cleansing who seeks to secure a platform here.
November 28 update from a legal worker:
What Spencer proposes to do may not be protected “speech” if within the context of other actions and events—skirmishes between neo-nazis and anti-racist demonstrators, campus walkouts, visits to campus by white nationalist/neo-nazi/KKK/armed militia supporters—, what he says and does contributes to racial discrimination that violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection rights of students of color.
Such discrimination may also violate the State of Michigan’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act:
37.2302—Public accommodations or services; prohibited practices. Sec. 302. Except where permitted by law, a person shall not: (a) Deny an individual the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a place of public accommodation or public service because of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, or marital status. [This is just one example.]
Some students of color at the University of Michigan are already experiencing significant distress at the idea of their University’s administration offering permission to Spencer to visit and speak on campus. A sanctioned visit by a prominent White Supremacist will only exacerbate this distress.
Furthermore, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires all institutions that receive federal funds to ensure the absence of discrimination: Title VI [. . .] prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. If Spencer’s ideology promotes white supremacy, and if white students are in turn encouraged to subscribe to and—even discretely—practice white supremacy in University socio-academic spheres, Spencer’s invitation to speak on campus may be interpreted as a failure by the administration to ensure the absence of discrimination there.