Magazine | June 11, 2018, Issue

Rage and Race at Yale

Yale University police respond to Sarah Braasch’s phone call, May 8, 2018. (Lolade Siyonbola via CNN)
On the university’s latest kowtow to the diversity enforcers

Once again, a college president has chosen to fan the flames of racial grievance rather than to calm them. This time, that president is Yale’s Peter Salovey. No surprise there, since Salovey has rarely missed an opportunity to signal his racial virtue by declaring that he presides over a campus harboring “hate,” “exclusion,” and “discrimination.” Yale’s response to a recent incident of petty dormitory tyranny is a textbook example of how not to lead a university.

On May 8, at 1:40 a.m., a female graduate student at Yale turned on the light in the graduate-dorm common room and found another woman sleeping there, amid books, a laptop, a pillow, and a blanket. The first woman allegedly told the second woman that she didn’t have the right to sleep there and called the Yale police to report an unauthorized person in the common room. Three Yale Police Department officers showed up five minutes later.

For the next 15 minutes, two of the officers and the erstwhile sleeper, Lolade Siyonbola, a 34-year-old MA candidate in African studies, interacted warily on the landing outside Siyonbola’s dorm room, as the cops tried to corroborate her identity. On another floor, the third officer questioned the caller, Sarah Braasch, a 43-year-old Ph.D. candidate in philosophy. Confirming Siyonbola’s identity took longer than usual since the name on her campus ID did not match the name she had chosen to use in Yale’s student database. Once the discrepancy was resolved, the officers admonished Braasch that Siyonbola had every right to be in the common room and left.

As captured on Siyonbola’s smartphone video, Braasch appears to be an officious control freak, believing herself empowered to enforce her own private code of dormitory conduct. Ordinarily, this trivial incident would have passed without notice. But because Braasch is white and Siyonbola is black, the episode has become an international scandal, and Yale has gone into crisis mode.

First out of the gate with a racial mea culpa was the dean of Yale Law School, Heather Gerken. In an email to the “Law School Community” on May 10, Gerken claimed that the police check of Siyonbola represented a “corrosive” pattern: “We are well aware that this is not the first time that people of color, and African Americans in particular, have been questioned about their right to be in a building on the Yale campus. Similar incidents have happened over the years here at the Law School.” Gerken is right: Such questioning has happened at the law school — to black and white students. Several black law students complained on Facebook after the Braasch episode about being asked for identification when their family was visiting and taking pictures. A white Yale law student has had the identical experience: “I’ve been asked for my ID at the law school when I had my family enter the building with me to take pictures,” he told me via email. He has been asked for his ID when a substitute security guard was at the building’s front entrance and when walking into the library. All of these potential “incidents” occurred during the day, not in the middle of the night.

I queried the law-school spokesman as to whether white students had ever been asked for ID at the law school and whether the dean found those requests “troubling” as well. The spokesman ignored my question.

Gerken called for a focus on “police training and procedures” as part of the solution to Yale’s “structural problems,” while adding that Yale’s “communal responsibility” cannot be addressed through policing alone.

In fact, there was nothing deficient in the police response that requires a refocus on “police training and procedures.” Once someone calls the police, the responding officers have to verify the identities of all the parties involved; doing so is not discretionary. The officers’ interaction with a justifiably frustrated Siyonbola demonstrated sound deescalation techniques. As she wondered out loud whether she was obligated to proffer her ID card, an officer asked her whether she could understand where he was “coming from”: “I don’t know anybody from anybody, so I’m here just to make sure you’re supposed to be here, make sure she’s supposed to be here, and we’ll get out of your hair.” He thanked her when she provided the ID, and he sought permission to remove it from her wallet.

Interestingly, when a black sergeant showed up, things got more, not less, charged. The sergeant told Siyonbola that everything was going to be okay, to which she responded: “I know it’s going to be okay, my ancestors built this university.” Siyonbola repeatedly claimed harassment, but the sergeant was having none of it: “I can tell you we’re going to do our job, you’re not being harassed.” When he asserted, “This is private property, we are police officers, we are allowed to do our job,” she responded: “I hope that makes you feel powerful.” As the interaction wound up, he reiterated: “Just because you’re contacted by a police officer does not mean it’s harassment.” The sergeant’s perhaps overly personal defense of his officers is a reminder that race politics often end at the doors of a police precinct house.

Several hours after Gerken’s email, President Salovey circulated a missive to the entire university declaring what was at stake in the incident: “discrimination and racism at Yale.” He admonished Yale’s faculty, staff, and students: “We must neither condone nor excuse racism, prejudice, or discrimination at Yale.” Salovey presents himself as a model that less enlightened Yale students and faculty should follow. Yale’s racism “angers and disappoints me,” he said. Recent events had led him “to reflect in new ways on the ordinary daily actions each of us can take to . . . combat hate and exclusion,” he wrote. “I hope that you will do the same. . . . Each of us has the power to fight against prejudice and fear. I hope you will join me in doing so.”

Salovey favors such Rousseauian displays of sensibility. In November 2015, a renowned Yale sociologist, Nicholas Christakis, was insulted, cursed, and screamed at for three hours by a snarling mob of students. Christakis’s sin was to fail to denounce an email sent by his wife, a Yale child psychologist, gently suggesting that students should be able to choose their own Halloween costumes without oversight from Yale’s diversity bureaucracy. Erika Christakis’s email and her husband’s failure to repudiate it threatened the very survival of Yale’s students of color, according to the mob and its many campus supporters. Student vigilantes continued to harass the couple until they resigned their positions as masters of an undergraduate residential college and Erika Christakis gave up teaching at Yale altogether.

Rather than condemning the students’ appalling behavior towards the Christakises, Salovey kowtowed. “In my 35 years on this campus, I have never been as simultaneously moved, challenged, and encouraged by our community — and all the promise it embodies — as in the past two weeks,” he wrote in another campus-wide email. “You have offered me the opportunity to listen to and learn from you. . . . I have heard the expressions of those who do not feel fully included at Yale.” Naturally, Salovey promised a new wave of costly diversity programming and infrastructure in the areas of “race, gender, inequality, and inclusion,” on top of a previously announced $50 million “faculty diversity” initiative. (The core of that initiative consisted of bidding up the salaries of minority applicants in the ongoing diversity arms race among universities.)

Where the Yale police tried to deescalate the graduate-dorm confrontation, Salovey escalated it into the very emblem of Yale’s supposed bigotry. But Sarah Braasch is not Yale, despite her feminist study of the “sub-human legal status of the world’s women.” A graduate student residing in the same dorm says he has never seen anyone bother another student for napping, let alone call the police. “I can’t emphasize enough just how unusual” her behavior is, he told me. Siyonbola described Braasch to the police officers as “unstable” and “psychotic.” “She needs to be put in an institution so that she can stop harassing people,” she said.

Is Braasch also a racist? She had called the police on another black graduate student once before — a male who had come to the graduate dorm for a meeting in February 2018 arranged by Siyonbola. The student, Jean-Louis Reneson, got lost and asked Braasch for directions to the same twelfth-floor common room where Siyonbola was sleeping this May. According to a discrimination complaint filed by Siyonbola and Reneson with the associate dean of graduate diversity, Braasch blocked Reneson from entering the common room and accused him of being an intruder. Four police officers showed up to investigate a “suspicious character” on the twelfth floor but left after establishing Reneson’s identity.

We do not know whether Reneson was behaving in a way that could have legitimately raised questions about his status; Braasch has presumably encountered dozens of black students without calling the police. But even if Braasch regards blacks as prima facie intruders, she is one idiosyncratic student among thousands, in an institution that offers boundless opportunities to every student within it on an equal basis. It is precisely the unusualness of her behavior that has made it newsworthy, and yet, having become newsworthy, her behavior is converted into the essence of Yale itself by the identity-politics machine.

Salovey’s May 10 email announced that Yale’s deans and vice presidents were all involved in a coordinated response “to this situation,” as if the Braasch incident were ongoing. Salovey himself would remain “directly involved in the next steps,” he said. Those next steps tumbled out of the waiting bureaucracy in wild abundance: mandatory implicit-bias-awareness training for all Graduate School of Arts and Sciences staff; another implicit-bias training session for all incoming graduate students; a series of “listening sessions” presided over by Yale’s secretary and vice president for student life, the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the vice president for human resources and administration, the vice president for communications, and the Yale police chief; training for all Ph.D. students in how to run an “inclusive classroom”; community-building sessions in graduate-student dorms presided over by graduate deans; ongoing training for the Yale police in diversity, inclusion, and unconscious bias; a retreat for the Advisory Committee on Student Life to develop the next phase of equity-and-inclusion programming; and meeting upon meeting between faculty and administrators to “coordinate long-term planning for student diversity and inclusion programming.” This eruption was just a start. As Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews repeated several times in campus-wide emails: “There is, indeed, much more to do,” one of the scariest pronouncements a diversity bureaucrat can utter.

None of this was enough. Siyonbola dismissed the administration’s initial response as “terrible.” “Do you want black students at Yale or do you not want black students at Yale?” she asked the Yale Daily News, as if there could be any doubt regarding Yale’s commitment to diversity. Over 700 Yale alumni accused the officers who responded to Braasch’s call of “racial harassment” and demanded that “racism and white supremacy” be uprooted from Yale’s curriculum, pedagogy, disciplinary policies, and admissions procedures. The president and the diversity-and-inclusion chairman of the Graduate Senate announced that Yale’s responses to the Braasch incident were deficient; more diversity and inclusion resources were necessary, demonstrating that students are diversity bureaucrats’ best allies, even if student calls to further inflate diversity bloat only increase their tuition.

Braasch’s career is over. She might as well pull out of graduate school now, since she will never get a teaching job. If Yale was wrong in reflexively slotting the incident into the racism narrative — if there were psychological stressors in Braasch’s life that were at play, if the history between Braasch and Siyonbola over the previous dorm incident contributed to Braasch’s police call — the destruction of her academic career is on Yale’s hands.

But while Braasch is professionally doomed, Yale, like other universities, positively wallows in its self-designation as a place of racism, exclusion, and hate. Why the distinction? Because such institutional self-accusation is a badge of moral superiority over the bigoted masses, especially when accompanied by a highly publicized redoubling of the diversity bureaucracy. The corporate world has already adopted this self-aggrandizing strategy of self-abasement, as Starbucks’s company-wide diversity training on May 29, 2018, shows.

Whatever Braasch’s motivations, Yale is not racist. And it is a disservice to tell students that it is, since doing so obscures the truth — that every Yale student is among the most privileged human beings in history, by virtue of possessing the chance to gain knowledge in an environment of scholarly treasure and faculty good will. Given the media storm around the Braasch–Siyonbola encounter, Yale probably needed to respond in some way, though Salovey should not have. The university should have put out a statement expressing its deep regret that a graduate student was groundlessly questioned in the middle of the night, then urged that all return to the great enterprise that Yale offers without qualification: learning.

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