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College Campuses Call For 'Safe Spaces'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here in the U.S., college campuses are still on edge after a week of turmoil. Last Monday, the president of the University of Missouri resigned after weeks of protests by black students who were angry over his handling of racially charged incidents on campus. By the end of the week, students across the country were protesting, trying to shed light on the experiences of minority students at their schools. At Missouri, some protesters blocked media access, kicking off a debate about whether or not their actions were an attack on free speech. We spoke to Slate Magazine's Jamelle Bouie about whether or not that's diverted attention from the real issues on college campuses.

JAMELLE BOUIE: I think the conversation about freedom of speech has sort of taken away from the fact that you have, at multiple selective, predominantly white institutions, minority students - and predominantly blacks - saying, we do not feel welcome on these campuses. And if you look at sort of the history of campus activism, this is a recurring complaint. I was just looking at a flier this morning from Missouri students in 1989 making identical complaints about an atmosphere of racial hostility.

MARTIN: So what's changed now? Why is this coming to the fore now?

BOUIE: I tend to think that you have this atmosphere of racial insensitivity, a feeling that the university isn't really there for you. I don't think it's any accident that this particular moment began in Missouri. You have a bunch of students who, for lack of a better word, were somewhat radicalized by the entire experience of Ferguson. And the bias they experience in their own lives is much more resonant for that reason.

MARTIN: It's also gotten wrapped up into this additional debate about a certain generation - the millennial generation - being, quote, "coddled"...

BOUIE: Right.

MARTIN: And thinking that universities in particular should do a better job of protecting them from material or opinions that they disagree with.

BOUIE: Right.

MARTIN: Do you think that is, again, another inappropriate conflation?

BOUIE: I do see it separate. And I don't think we should ignore the degree to which at these selective, predominantly white institutions, students of color can feel very isolated. I went to the University of Virginia. I am African-American. UVA, when I went there, I think it was about 9 percent African-American. And frankly, I mean, I felt like I circumscribed my experience with the university. There are things I did not do and places I did not go because I just didn't want to have to deal with the possibility of being faced with a racial slur. And some people might see that and say, well, you just need to toughen up. But I would challenge someone who said that or who thought that to imagine what it would be like to be at a place that is functionally your home. This is your community. And you can't walk around and enjoy your community to its fullest because you're worried about someone using words which come with an implicit threat.

MARTIN: When you see what appears to be a wave of change happening, when you look at University of Missouri and the leadership changes that happened there, what's the big picture here? Is this - are we going to see more of the same? And what changes practically for the students who are feeling this?

BOUIE: I tend to think that we will see more of this just because it's a pervasive problem. You can, as an administration, decide to prioritize racial sensitivity and inclusivity. And that can take many different forms. That can be, as a start, as simple as kind of requiring students to do something around diversity. And this may sound a bit much, but I'll say again, at UVA, we had something like that for first- year students. And it was basically skits for new students to essentially say to them, listen, you might be living with people who look different than you. Here are things to watch out for. Here are things to think about.

MARTIN: Do you think that stuff works?

BOUIE: I think it does work - 'cause I think obviously you'll have students who kind of just roll their eyes at it. But I do think being forthright about this stuff at least gets kids thinking about it. At UVA, there's been ongoing efforts to really reckon with the school's history with slavery. I think some of the students at Missouri want Missouri to do the same. At Georgetown, students are asking the administration there to do the same. Those steps may not seem like much. But they in fact, I think, establish a new kind of climate and mood.

MARTIN: Jamelle Bouie, he is chief political correspondent at Slate. We should also note he's recently been named a political analyst for CBS News. He joined us here in our studios in Washington. Thanks so much, Jamelle.

BOUIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.