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Dear Comfortable Americans,
The most recent in a spate of news regarding unjustified emergency calls to police happened during a campus tour for prospective college students. Two Native American brothers saved up their money and drove the family car seven hours from their home in New Mexico to visit Colorado State University (“CSU”). They arrived a bit behind schedule and joined the tour late. Because the parent of another prospective student on the tour was frightened by the young men’s dark clothing and felt they didn’t belong, she called campus police.
This is troubling on many levels. But the one that hits closest to home is that these young men were made to feel excluded from an institution of higher learning. My family was not in a position to guide me through the college application process. Like the Gray brothers, I have been in the position of visiting a school in a different state without the benefit of a parent to accompany me, and I have a small understanding of how scary and foreign that can feel.
Now, I don’t want to discourage people from the “if you see something, say something” mantra, but folks need to start using some judgment. But while we want people to report suspicious activity, “different from my experience” does not equate with “suspicious”.
In the U.S., we tend to think highly of ourselves and our possibilities as individuals. We have long believed that we are exceptional. While the idea of American exceptionalism originated with the Communist Party as a derisive explanation for the lack of a popular socialist movement in the U.S., the phrase has become a kind of shorthand endorsement for the concept of America as the land of opportunity. Indeed, the “most lasting theory” of American exceptionalism comes from historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” describing the western frontier as “a great leveler where pioneers shed all semblance of status and heritage and worked together to tame a fierce wilderness. It was a cauldron of democracy—the ‘gate of escape from the bondage of the past.’”
Similarly, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has credited his personal success story to “the unique opportunities of the United States,” which he described this way: “America … is the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from. You can be anything you are willing to work hard to be. The result is the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed against rich people in the marketplace and competition.”
Education is generally recognized as the current leveler of the great American playing field. But in practice, we are reluctant to extend the branch of opportunity to people who don’t fit a narrow definition of American. And anyone who doesn’t outwardly conform to this select group is not welcomed into institutions of higher learning. Thus, the reality of American exceptionalism has been turned on its head. The ideal of access to opportunity, essentially of inclusivism, has been distorted into the practice of exclusion from opportunity. And I believe this is why a parent on a campus tour decided to call the police because two kids “just really stand out” and “made me feel, like, sick.” Most disturbing to me is the way this parent seems to have colluded with other like-minded parents. According to the transcript, the caller’s husband claimed “another dad, also, another man that was on the tour also believes they don’t belong.”
Just because someone doesn’t match your cookie cutter perception of a teenager or a prospective student doesn’t mean they don’t belong on a college campus. So it’s time for an honest reckoning with “American exceptionalism”. As it turns out, “[w]ho your parents were and where you came from matters probably more in the United States than in most other advanced economies, at least if statistics on upward mobility are to be believed.”
And we shouldn’t be surprised at such micro-level collusion when it’s happening higher up on the chain of influence. We now know that donor sway extends as far as suggesting students for admission and even handpicking faculty.
On a large scale, this is incredibly disconcerting. But individually, the “discomfort” of privileged white Americans has life-or-death consequences for people of color. When you call the police, you are putting other people’s lives on the line. The Gray family was justifiably scared by the unwarranted confrontation from police. Ms. Gray feared the worst: “I was concerned for my sons’ safety and advised them to return home immediately,” and “I am lucky my sons are both still alive.”
All of us need to get out of our comfort zones. As noted by CSU President Tony Frank, “[W]e can all examine our conscience[s] about the times in our own lives when we’ve crossed the street, avoided eye contact, or walked a little faster because we were concerned about the appearance of someone we didn’t know but who was different from us.”
It may sound trite, but we are actually stronger because of our differences. Former President Barack Obama got it right when he “paid tribute to a group of newly naturalized citizens, celebrating their diversity and service to country as ‘one of the reasons that America is exceptional.’”
The responsibility for ensuring that American exceptionalism is inclusive, not exclusive, falls to each of us. Let’s start by getting uncomfortable.