A New Noose and a Critique of ‘Free Speech’

It seems we can’t go a day without a report of racial terrorism in the shape of a noose. The news here in NYC is reporting on the appearance of another noose, this one sent to a high school principal in Canarsie, Brooklyn, along with a note advocating “white power.” At the same time, the NY State Senate unanimously passed legislation that would make it a felony involving harsher punishment for people “who etch, paint, draw or otherwise place or display nooses on public or private property,” (quoted from the Newsday article linked above). And, even though that legislation passed unanimously, I fully expect that it will run into trouble in the House and in the public sphere as people defend it as a form of “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. The sort of knee-jerk defense of nearly any form of racism as “protected speech” is characteristic of what is by now a decades-long backlash against very modest gains by women and people of color, particularly in the academy. (I find it not at all surprising that so many of these incidents are happening in educational institutions, where these modest gains toward equality seem most evident.) Legal scholars Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado and Crenshaw writing from a critical race perspective in their introduction to Words that Wound, merit quoting at length on this point:

“Contemporaneous with the recent outbreak of gutter hate speech and racial harassment, there is an emerging and increasingly virulent backlash against the extremely modest successes achieved by communities of color, women, and other subordinated groups in our efforts to integrate academic institutions run by and for white male elites. The chief spokespersons for this more refined sentiment against persons and voices that are new an unfamiliar to the campus and intellectual discourse are not purveyors of gutter hate speech. They are polite and polished colleagues. The code words of this backlash are words like merit, rigor, standards, qualifications and excellence. Increasingly we hear those who are resisting change appropriating the language of freedom struggles. Words like intolerant, silencing, McCarthyism, censors, and orthodoxy are used to portray women and people of color as oppressors and to pretend that the powerful have become powerless. …Stripped of its context this is a seductive argument. The privilege and power of white male elites is wrapped in the rhetoric of politically unpopular speech. …The first amendment arms conscious and unconscious racists — Nazis and liberals alike — with a constitutional right to be racist. Racism is just another idea deserving of constitutional protection like all ideas. ” [emphasis added] (Matsuda et al., 1993:14-15).

What’s at stake here is, as these scholars point out, “our vision for this society,” not merely how to balance one individuals’ freedom of speech against another individual’s freedom from injury but what the substantive content of that freedom and equality looks like. What they’re calling for – have been calling for, for some time now – is a radical shift in perspective so that it is the victim’s story that’s at the center of our response.

So, to take the current example, the laws should be written from the perspective of those who are on the receiving end of the noose. And, while the NY State Senate has taken a step in the right direction here, it ultimately falls short because this is not a problem that’s isolated to New York state or to a particular region of the U.S.  Racism, and the racist terror that the nooses represent, is a national problem that requires a collective response; and, yet the federal government remains predictably silent on the issue.