Scores of dead white men glared back at them from the walls of the college dorm. The thought that some of those esteemed alumni could have actually owned their ancestors apparently haunted the dreams of some of the privileged, elite students at Yale so much that they took to the yard in protest. The dorms at Yale, they have declared, are no longer a “safe space” for black students.
Not far away from Yale’s New Haven, Connecticut, campus, in rural York County, Pennsylvania, a 12-year-old is dealing with the usual cruelties meted out by middle-school kids, compounded with an extra dose of racial hostility. Fed up with the ongoing bullying, he writes an open letter to the school demanding redress:
“To Whom It May Concern:
“Yesterday on the football bus coming from our football game a kid started saying racist things to me. He told me 200 years ago my ancestors hung from a tree and after he said that I should I hang from a tree. That made me super mad, so in the locker room I told him not to call me n–-r or that I should be hung on a tree. I’m tired of boys messing with me because of my skin. I’m at my boiling point with this. Please do something about this because when I bring it to the office/principal, you do nothing about it and I’m tired of the racism.”
These two fragments represent the dimensions of race faced by a new generation of black Americans. On the one hand, they are evidence of the immense progress that has taken place in the country over the past 60 years or so. The very fact that there are significant numbers of black students at elite universities is a testament to that progress. That a 12-year-old boy attending a public school in a predominantly white Pennsylvania county openly voiced his frustration speaks to his expectation that the grown-ups in the room must exhibit better leadership. That’s progress too.