We See Things Differently

by Ahmed Olayinka Sule 

Dear Edward, I write regarding your article, “The rise of liberal intolerance in America”, published in the Financial Times on 30 November 2015. The central theme of your paper was that the sensitivity of the liberal left in general and black agitators in particular is stifling free speech. To support your thesis you focus mainly on the protests taking place in US campuses by black students. After reading your piece, I have been left with no choice but to write my third “We See Things Differently” letter to a Financial Times columnist (the first two letters were penned to your colleague Christopher Caldwell in response to two articles about racism in the NBA and Trayvon Martin.)

I agree with you that the point of higher education is to inculcate a spirit of inquiry. I agree with you that large swaths of the American public have lost faith in their leaders’ integrity; however, I don’t agree with your central thesis and the supporting premises. Sir, the problem with your social analysis is that it is written from a privileged white Anglo-Saxon perspective. Since you have failed to factor the viewpoint of the other side of the colour line in your analysis, my rejoinder will address the black perspective. It is my belief that people are more informed when they synthesis both the privileged and the unprivileged narrative.

You appear to lay the blame of what you call “America’s liberal intolerance” mainly at the worn out feet of black youths marching the streets of the various US campuses. You make reference to the black protesting students (directly and indirectly) in five out of your eight-paragraph article. The fact that it is mainly black students protesting about racial injustice in US campuses is not a sufficient and necessary condition to conclude that the left movement is intolerant or suppressing free speech.

In analysing the Princeton students’ protest against Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy, you note that despite Wilson’s reintroduction of segregation into the federal workforce, “The case in his favour is that he is an important historic figure. He was also author of the Treaty of Versailles.” The flaw with this line of thinking is that it uses a man’s lesser good deeds to downplay his greater evil deeds. Sir, isn’t it like saying that despite Hitler’s role in the Holocaust, the case in his favour is that he helped in the technological development of Germany, he set up Volkswagen, which employs hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and he ended the Weimar Republic civil war?

Another flaw in your analysis is that in order to justify your opposition to the students protest against Wilson’s racist legacy, you put forward a false dilemma suggesting that the elimination of Wilson’s name from Princeton demands erasing Washington, Jefferson and Churchill from history due to their racist past. The former can happen without the latter occurring.

You article appears to be dismissive of the sufferings of people in my community. Whenever you talk about the sufferings of black folks you end it with a conditional “but” or “yet.” For instance, you write:

  • Wilson might have introduced segregation, BUT “he is an important historic figure”
  • “Look at the frequency of trigger-happy police responses to unarmed black suspects. BUT quashing free speech is no answer
  • The goal is to eliminate prejudice from the mind. YET it can have the perverse effect of heightening awareness of race.”

Someone once said, “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem to you personally,” while Martin Luther King said, “Few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race”. I guess when one reads about how his ancestors were chained like animals and sold like merchandise; when one learns that her father and mother were segregated because of the colour of their skin; when one sees his brothers and sisters gunned down by police because they had the wrong skin tone, then one will appreciate why the sufferings of black folks cannot be trivialised to simplistic “BUT” and “YET” sound bites.

In Margarita Aragon’s essay No Alibis – Educating Children About Racism (don’t worry, it’s applicable for adults too) she says, “When it comes to memorializing black resistance, even resistance against conditions now universally repudiated, the suffering of the oppressed remains infinitely more palatable for mass consumption than their anger”. You might take note.

Student groups Open Stellenbosch & Rhodes Must Fall join forces in a protest at the University of Stellenbosch. PHOTO: Leanne Stander

You fail to appreciate that the agitation of the black students in US campuses is part of a global movement where black students living in the bastions of racism in South Africa, Britain and the USA are straightening up their backs and saying ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. In South Africa, black students are fighting against institutional racism prevalent in South African Universities. Perhaps you may want to watch the documentary Luister which shows students of Stellenbosch University narrating their racial experiences. Students from University of Cape Town succeeded in removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the school. You might be inclined to disapprove of the removal of the statue because Cecil Rhodes was a man of historic importance , a businessman and a mining magnate; however people in my community see him in a different light. We see him as a bigoted racist who once said, “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence.” We have not and we will not forget how Rhodes stole the riches of Africa; neither can my people forget his “Every Master Wallop His Nigger Bill” which granted white farmers the right to flog their black workers. In the UK, black students of your alma mater Oxford University are also calling for Cecil Rhodes’ statue to be removed from Oriel College. You might want to rebut, “There is no thing as an uncomplicated historic figure,” but would you arrive at this conclusion if the statue were that of Hitler? In the USA, the lynching of black bodies by an institutionally racist police force has triggered the black students’ impatience with institutional racism.

One of the reasons why I mentioned earlier that your social analysis was based on a privileged white Anglo-Saxon perspective is because the references used to support your argument are all Anglo-Saxon influences – whether they are Woodrow Wilson, James Madison, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Williams Shakespeare, F Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Upton Sinclair or Donald Trump. Perhaps if you had taken time to study the history, philosophy and writings of people of colour you would appreciate the black students’ agitation. You could start here if you wished and follow the links. However as you seem to place a lot of emphasis on Woodrow Wilson, you might also want to learn about W.E.B Du Bois, a black sociologist, historian and civil rights activist who lived during the same era. You could begin by reading Du Bois’ open letter, which he wrote to Wilson in March 1913. The letter gives an insight into the conditions of black folks at the time and here is an excerpt from the letter: “It is not the offices at your disposal, President Woodrow Wilson, that is the burden of our great cry to you. We want to be treated as men. We want to vote. We want our children educated. We want lynching stopped. We want no longer to be herded as cattle on street cars and railroads. We want the right to earn a living, to own our own property and to spend our income unhindered and uncursed.”

I would also like to address your claim that the left in general and the black left in particular are trying to shut down free speech. I will also address your implicit assertion that black students are trying to hinder the universities ability to inculcate a spirit of inquiry. Sir, black students agitating for racial justice cannot be pigeonholed into left or right. To paraphrase Kwame Nkrumah, black students face neither left or right; they face forward. Furthermore, free speech and clamouring for racial justice are not mutually exclusive concepts. The black students protesting are not shutting down free speech, they are only utilising nonviolent direct action to make their case heard. If you had taken time to study black history, you would appreciate that black folks who have been silenced for way too long often result to unconventional forms of protests such as sit-ins, freedom rides and economic boycott to pressurise their oppressors to negotiate. Martin Luther King explained that the purpose of this nonviolent direct action is to, “Create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” So Sir, black students who pull down statues of historic racist figures and demand the renaming of buildings are engaging in creative tension methods to bring their oppressors to the negotiating table.

Black students are also aggrieved because they are sick and tired of hearing the white supremacy narrative that if they work hard and turn a blind eye to injustice, they will scale the social ladder and live a well-adjusted life. They have also set their sights on universities because for too long, these institutions of learning rather than providing an enabling environment that inculcates a spirit of inquiry have become breeding grounds for racist sciences, racist history and racist philosophies, which are passed down from one generation of students to another. So it should not be of any surprise that some students are asking for the introduction of mandatory courses on marginalised peoples to counteract the prevailing narrative in Anglo-Saxon history classes, which suggest that people of colour have always been “slaves and savages”. You note, “Different voices should be heard and debated” – however, the relevant question should be: which voices are currently being heard? For too long we have heard and debated the voices of the white Anglo-Saxon world; isn’t it time for us to hear and debate the voices of the coloured world?

I find it very disturbing that you heap the blame of racial prejudice on the victims of racial prejudice. You argue, “The goal is to eliminate prejudice from the mind. Yet it can have the perverse effect of heightening awareness of race,” then you downplay the role of diversity officers in universities by saying that some officers find racism where it does not exist. You then conclude, “Next time you wonder why a demagogue like Donald Trump is doing so well, ask why there is such high return to his plain spokenness. Could it be because it is being rooted out of public life?” Sir, isn’t this like blaming a woman who has had her wallet stolen because she was carrying an expensive handbag? If you critically examine the popularity of the likes of Donald Trump and France’s Le Pen, you will understand that a lot of it has to do with the increased intolerance for black folks, immigrants and Muslims in America and France.

Finally, people in my community see things quite differently from way you seem to view things. We don’t see black student shutting down the right to free speech, instead, we see them exercising their right to protest; we don’t see George Washington, Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson as important historic figures, instead we see Martin Luther King, Ida Wells and Steve Biko as historic figures. We don’t see the rise of the Black Lives Movement as the rise of liberal intolerance in America, instead, we see it as a movement restoring the soul of America.

Cover photo: source

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Ahmed Sule is a CFA Charterholder, Chartered Accountant, photojournalist and social critic. He also  obtained a Certificate in Photojournalism at the University of Arts London. He has also worked on various photojournalism projects including Obama: The Impact, Jesus Christ: The Impact, The Williams Sisters etc. He cites Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Kwame Nkrumah and W.E. Du Bois as his major influences. Find him on Twitter @Alatenumo


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2 thoughts on “Open Letter to the Financial Times: On Black Students Protesting Against Racism

  1. The flaw in your thinking about race is you assume all black people are the same. You Sir write in your own words and words of people of the past on how not to judge people on their skin color or how to not judge a book by its cover or how to treat people equally yet not every is the same. It amazes me how even the smartest of the smart still get things wrong and when speaking about something they feel so passionate about they do the same seperating and generalizing as their opposer. I’m sure everthing I said here will be ignored and picked apart. You don’t even know me but you are going to tell me who I am and what I think because I’m white yet I was the “token” white kid growing up in Wilmington Delaware where every black friend had better shoes, clothes and video games than I did. My dad working three jobs to pay the bills and get us into a house in Delaware. I’m friends with all the black kids being the only white kid on the basketball and football field during recess yet not the richest or most privileged yet I’ve heard this white privileged my whole life. It depends on where you are from and who you are. It is not only because someone’s skin is white that they are privileged.


    1. You see I know the black community very well because I grow up in it as a white kid. Don’t you dare show up to school with old Jordan’s on you will get crushed! The black kids I knew had the newest kicks, their Mom couldn’t afford it but she got them anyway. And the kids would hangout in the hallway with their brand new white shoes sticking out as they’d say “the first whiteboy to mess up my kicks is getting clocked!” I of course was protected because I was the token white boy of this group. I know the discrimination within the black community when it comes to facial features and skin darkness or lightness. None of that ever seems to get talked about, its always another group saying or discriminating against the black community. Maybe just maybe the negative racist hatred towards Zoe Saldano brings these inner troubles to the surface. I will hold my breath but keep an eye on tv and online for news or talk about this subject. It’s the “keep it real” group that I wish would speak on these things yet we always only tend to speak on what we want rather than what might be uncomfortable. I’m tired of race I really really am. White people this, black people that. I grew up and still will always judge the individual. I don’t care about your ancestors or even your parents, who is the individual and are they speaking truth or trash. Your Sharapova article showed me your thoughts on skin color and race and it saddens me. You cherry picked just like you accused your opposition of doing. You went to race rather than the relationships these news organizations or tennis players have with Sharapova. My white 20 something female cousin has hit that college age where she knows everthing and can fix the world yet she speaks on race in America on her Facebook repeating the things she’s read and heard her professors say yet she makes everything black and white while I direct her attention toward the Spanish Conquistadors that for some reason she’s never been taught about. This is the learn a little and speak on it like the individual is smart. That seems to be what most of the youth of American is going today. Mostly repeating or retweeting something they read or heard.


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