Social Justice

During the EDU meeting two weeks ago, Larissa Davis ’13,a member of a committee working on changes to the MRC, asked attendants to give recommendations for desirable qualifications of the new MRC Interim Director sought to be hired in the coming months. Last Tuesday, the College posted a job description designed with student input and meant to attract the applicants most suited for the position. Many of the students at the EDU meeting enthusiastically spoke and several commented on the necessity that the Interim Director come from a social justice background. While I commend the committee for its efforts to include student voices in this process, the best candidate for Interim Director will not be someone with a social justice background. Due to the social and political ideals inherent in social justice, having the lead person in charge of the MRC come from such a background will be inevitably exclusionary. I do not mean to say that someone from a social justice background will intentionally create an atmosphere that is uncomfortable for certain groups of students on campus, but because of the way in which a social justice perspective tends to frames arguments about race and class, the MRC will not feel like a safe space for some students under such leadership.

In order for the MRC to become a meaningful institution, it needs to function in a way that promotes real inclusivity ­— inclusivity that goes beyond often-times deterministic arguments for racial and ethnic diversity that exclude political and ideological diversity. The way in which the College has repeatedly presented issues of diversity since President Anthony Marx’s tenure has been to emphasize the importance of including minority and economically disadvantaged students in our community. Such an understanding, however, is insufficient if the school wants to promote genuine discussion among its students, since it creates an automatic divide between those students who “increase diversity” and those who do not. Having the MRC be led by someone coming from a social justice perspective is likely to have the same divisive effect.

Social justice has no real meaning; it is used almost exclusively as a politically convenient code word for redistribution. Because social justice implies the existence of a form of structural social injustice that needs to be actively fought, it is a phrase that ignores the multi-causal nature of inequity in American society and places blame on certain groups. It is true that our world is unjust, but the notion of justice promoted through this conception is highly flawed because it assumes that people, by virtue of their backgrounds, either belong to the category of the oppressed or that of the oppressor. While there is a space for those thought to be oppressed to empower themselves and for those marked as the oppressor to function as positive agents of change, this is still a divisive assumption. It stems from the belief that inequity results primarily, perhaps even exclusively, from an injustice perpetuated by the privileged against the underprivileged and, perhaps inadvertently, promotes guilt within those groups that are considered to be privileged. Under the framework of social justice there is little space for individual achievement because everything you do is tied to who you are, and who you are is defined by your group’s narrative of subjection to greater structural forces based on historical power inequities. To have someone that accepts these notions as the head of the MRC will only reinforce the divisions already present on campus.

An MRC Interim Director with a social justice-based background will act on the implications of that understanding, considering this a good way of empowering our underprivileged students and educating our privileged ones. In fact, all that will be achieved will be to push the seemingly more privileged students even further away from the MRC. Though it is true that many students already believe the MRC is not a space for them, that is no excuse to make this space appear unwelcoming. While the director may be well-intentioned, it is unlikely that his or her programming will appeal to students who do not already have an interest in social justice because their understanding of their role will necessarily involve the perpetuation of these ideas. Discussions of privilege are not meant to be accusatory, but often times they are. Last semester, as one of the discussion leaders for the Day of Dialogue, I saw how calls to dismantle privilege put certain peoples on the defensive. The group I co-led was composed primarily of white, affluent male athletes and it was easy to see that they felt attacked by Professor Cobham-Sander’s presentation on privilege; even the white male facilities staff member in our group seemed uncomfortable. At first all discussion was stifled because these men felt labeled as oppressors, as perpetrators of rape or willing bystanders. As soon as the conversation moved away from the accusatory tone of privilege, these students opened up and had insightful recommendations for needed changes. As a community, we need to make sure that our campus promotes inclusive dialogue, not the blaming and awkward floor-staring that results from the politically-motivated perspective of social justice. The MRC, if it is to have a real purpose on campus, needs to make all students feel welcome, not just those who agree with the agenda inherent in social justice.

Though it may not be the worst amongst its peers, Amherst College is notorious for putting the liberal in liberal arts education. From anonymous attacks on The Student website after Andrew Kaake’s pro-life article last year, to gleeful comments concerning the retirement of conservative professors and distinguished scholars Hadley Arkes and Walter Nicholson, to private ridicules of the Amherst College Republicans regardless of their impressive work in the last few months, hostility against conservative ideals is rampant on our campus. The hiring of an Interim Director from a social justice background will aggravate this hostility. The ideology that informs the social justice understanding is one based on the idea that equity should be the aim of social and political institutions. It demands the primacy of the collective over the individual and is therefore perfectly in line with contemporary liberal agendas demanding increased welfare benefits. To hire an Interim Director from a social justice background will be an implicit endorsement of these politics. Already the campus promotes liberal ideas in the way in presents certain issues to its students, but to continue this pattern with the one person whose primary purpose is to promote inclusivity on campus is going much too far. This move will serve as the College’s way of saying that conservative values and ideologies are not really welcome here, that notions of inclusivity go only as far as race, ethnicity and socio-economic status will allow.

In the abstract, it seems like a good idea to hire an Interim Director from a social justice background. Unfortunately, the reality is very different. Our campus is already divided, with many students feeling as though they have no authority to speak about these issues because their background is not “diverse” enough. When I wrote an article last semester criticizing affirmative action, I received emails from students and professors alike that felt as I did, but could not articulate those feelings because they feared being publically attacked as people who could not understand the struggles of minority students. One alum wrote a caustic blog post about me in which he argued my ideas were wrong simply because I looked too white to actually understand what it means to be a person of color in America; he had never seen me in person or spoken with me. When it comes to issues of diversity and inclusivity at Amherst, we need to move beyond what we know will only perpetuate the divisions on campus. We need to do this because it matters, because it is of dire importance that we create one community, not many disparate ones.

Everyone at Amherst has been excluded at some point or another, even those within groups that are generally thought of as privileged. This past weekend, a seemingly racially-motivated prank occurred on campus. At approximately four in the morning on Saturday, a student discovered that piles of white powder were left in front of the doors of the white male students living in the second floor of Moore dormitory. Because the resident counselor responded quickly to the incident, the police wrote a report and the powder was cleaned up before many knew anything had happened. That was it. No campus-wide email. No discussion. Having spoken to a student that actually witnessed this event, I know they were deeply troubled, but no one else seemed to care. Last semester, there was a huge backlash when the n-word was found written in snow, and rightfully so. Why is it, however, that attacks against students that are generally labeled as privileged do not garner such attention? Something is wrong at Amherst and it needs to be addressed now by reframing our discussions about inclusivity. We need to think critically about what we need the MRC to be in our community, and the first step in doing so is to realize that social justice is not the best means to promote true inclusivity. We need a great leader to be our Interim Director, but that leader should not have a social justice background.