Steve Bannon at U Chicago: A Grad Student of Color’s Perspective.
Per the invitation of Luigi Zingales, Professor at UofC Booth, Steve Bannon is slated to speak at the University of Chicago at an unknown date. After the announcement sparked backlash among the student body, Professor Zingales took to Facebook to defend himself against criticism for inviting Bannon:
“Whether you agree with him or not (and I personally do not), Mr. Bannon has come to interpret and represent this backlash in America. For this reason, I invited Mr. Bannon to a debate on these issues with our faculty,”
Zingales’ invitation led to a fallout among some of his colleagues who said that inviting Bannon normalizes white nationalism.
This provoked an all-too familiar conversation about the merits of free speech and protecting the most vulnerable populations. The University of Chicago has prompted a debate among faculty, staff, and students mainly surrounding these two questions:
- Is opposing Steve Bannon and white nationalism on grounds that it normalizes white nationalism an infringement on free speech?
- Should the school opt for protecting free speech or their minority student population?
I’ve been in conversation with a number of students on campus about Bannon’s presence on campus, what it means, and how we should respond. Over the course of those conversations, it’s become clear that I am in the minority position (pun intended). I’d like to outline the various arguments that I’ve come across which, sadly, I’ve not always had the most patience to respond to in the moment. I do not post these arguments to make a mockery or a straw-man out of them. I post them merely to articulate why I find them untenable. Overall, I think that it is wise for us to critically analyze whether we’ve bought into the shrill insistence that denying white nationalists a platform is tantamount to intellectual cowardice and a denial of free speech. I sincerely and humbly invite clarity for where I may have misunderstood these arguments. Since the decision to invite Bannon affects students of color the most, it is incumbent on me to provide an outline of responses I’ve heard which I’ve found untenable and articulate why I believe so. I’ve listed seven below.
1. Bannon has as much of a right to speak as any black nationalist would.
Who was the last black nationalist to speak at UofC? But more importantly, the history of power and domination in America doesn’t make black nationalism half as threatening to the lives of individuals as white nationalism does. Black nationalism is a response to American racism, and is thus a form of empowerment, even if one sees it as an illegitimate source of empowerment since it still pushes for separation from one’s neighbor, albeit an oppressive one.
White nationalism, on the other hand, is a real, concrete threat to the lives of [Black] Americans. White nationalism corrodes at our fundamental commitment to democracy because it envisions a white nation where only white opinions are represented — so, in many ways white nationalism is opposed to the very principle of free speech.
2. Steve Bannon was a senior advisor to the President — surely he has something to teach us even if we disagree with him.
The only reason that a white nationalist was a senior advisor to the President is because a black nationalist would never have access to the Oval Office. Moreover, the suggestion that Bannon has something to teach us solely on the basis of his proximity to power is premised on the idea that only powerful people are worthy of teaching us. Should students look to Bannon as a model for success given the fact that he’s leveraged his positions to push the country toward white nationalism?
And since we know black people are funneled into prisons while white people are funneled into Washington, D.C., white people — including white nationalists —white people will always have something to teach us while black voices will be silenced.
It is incumbent upon us to pay very close attention to the voices of victims. Dr. Cornel West often says “the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” Likewise, James Baldwin once said, “Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Providing a bigot with a platform is antithetical to justice.
3. If Steve Bannon comes, he’ll be made to look like a fool. Surely, he’s going up against experts who can shut him down.
But will he look like a fool? And to whom? I have a hard time believing that someone committed to white nationalism will suddenly have a metanoia experience after they are presented with a 45 minute conversation proving how wrong they actually are. This platform will only give credence to the idea that there are legitimate reasons to holding white nationalist positions. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bannon fans take to Twitter during the debate boasting about how he is “DESTROYING (Capital letters, remember) these liberal professors at UofC.”
4. If we say Bannon CAN’T come, then won’t that create a slippery slope of who we choose to invite and disinvite in the future? I mean, who are the arbiters in this matter?
In short, there are always arbiters and principles of selection. Black people are never the arbiters or the principles for selection. How many black authors are you reading this quarter?
Luigi Zingales didn’t invite anyone to come to UofC — he invited Steve Bannon, and he invited him for a reason. He says he invited him because he represents the “backlash” in America. Whatever the price of Bannon’s visit is, it will be paid for by students of color. It will come at a cost of their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. We’ve been down this road before and it won’t slow down because the slope is already greased up. So if a slippery slope is created, it surely is not the making of any person of color on campus. All we are trying to do by inserting our opinion is stating how we can slow this slope down if you listen to us.
5. But what about free speech?
Is it the role of an institution to protect free speech or to cultivate philosophically and socially responsible human beings?
It would be irresponsible of the University of Chicago to give a platform to any random Joe who only reads online conspiracy articles and thinks the earth is flat because this would legitimize its position as an option as credible as basic contemporary science. White nationalism is also dangerous because it envisions a state where only white people are allowed a voice. Again, this is antithetical to the principles of free speech. Remember, institutions have principles of selection. To my knowledge, Booth does not teach classes on communist economics.
Platforms given to anyone is a recipe for a chaotic democracy. As students, we should be presented with reasonable options that range across the spectrum while not entertaining positions that have bigoted, unfounded and outlandish bases for their positions.
6. Just ignore Bannon. Why are you giving him the attention that he wants? He’s going to play the “victimized white man card” and win.
We lost the moment Luigi Zingales offered a platform for Bannon.
Students of color are now in the precarious position to either 1.) shut up and take it, or 2.) receive lectures from moralizers about “free speech”, why we need to protect it, and how we aren’t nuanced enough in our understanding to look at this from a variety of different angles.
Black and Brown people won’t be offered an apology for being placed in this position nor will our pushback be taken seriously.
And I wish that there was a way to ignore his presence on campus. I just can’t will to do that. The University has pushed me to reckon with the reality that there might be white nationalists on campus who will feel emboldened by his presence there. Hate crimes have spiked since the 2016 Presidential election and Charlottesville, VA showed us that white nationalists will come out of hiding when they know they aren’t alone. Likewise, we know that our voices will be dismissed as mere “outrage” and that will give Bannon a win. It’s actually a Catch-22 for us.
Nevertheless, we still choose to resist because we won’t go down without a fight.
7. I respect your right to say what you’ve said above, Matt. That proves my point about the merits of free speech. You wouldn’t be able to express your opinions, like you have above, if you weren’t afforded that constitutional right.
If white nationalism continues to gain the traction that it appears to, I won’t be able to say anything anymore. And you’ve missed the whole point.