This week, racists marched through the streets of Orlando, flashing white power symbols in advance of a Donald Trump rally; the Democratic presidential frontrunner bragged about his ability to hobnob with segregationists; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the U.S. doesn’t need reparations because “we’ve” made up for slavery by electing a black president; and a political debate erupted over what exactly constitutes a concentration camp.
And so, in the midst of what feels like pride week for bigots, I find it difficult to muster empathy for Kyle Kashuv, the Parkland-shooting-survivor-turned-conservative-activist, whose admission to Harvard was rescinded after violently racist comments he made in 2016 resurfaced.
In this time of emboldened racism, we need schools, employers, clubs, and everyone else to send a clear message about what kind of behavior our society values, and what we find intolerable. The language Kashuv used is about as intolerable as it gets.
Conservatives have gone from claiming they believe racist speech is unacceptable to arguing that it is not only forgivable, but expected.
Prominent conservatives have argued that Kashuv shouldn’t be punished for something he said when he was 16-years-old. (Although what is college admission if not a judgment of who you are at 16?) More disturbingly, they argued that expecting young white people to not use racial slurs is an unreasonable standard of behavior. Conservative podcast host Ben Shapiro, for example, tweeted that Harvard’s decision “sets up an insane, cruel standard that no one can possibly meet.” No one? Really?
Conservatives have gone from claiming they believe racist speech is unacceptable to arguing that it is not only forgivable, but expected. The goalposts have moved from “I would never” to “everyone has” — a shift in rhetoric that should concern us all.
Others have claimed that Harvard’s rescindment leaves no room for personal growth or forgiveness. As New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “People seem to think that the way to prove virtue is by denouncing and shunning, not through mercy and rigorous forgiveness.”
It’s true that Kashuv apologized, calling his comments “flippant,” “petty,” and “callous.” He did not, however, use the word “racist” once — a telling omission that doesn’t signal growth as much as it does damage control.
At the heart of this furor — like others that conservatives have labeled “free speech” fights — is a debate around who in America gets to make mistakes, who is granted forgiveness, and whose future is considered most worthy of protection.
When writer Kevin Williamson lost his job at The Atlantic for saying he thought women who have abortions should be killed by hanging, the conservative backlash centered on his career prospects and damaged reptuation. Not once did anyone consider what it might mean to the women who work at the magazine — statistically one in four of whom have likely had abortions — to sit at a desk next to someone who wanted them dead.
When Brett Kavanaugh was made to answer for a sexual assault allegation after recieving the nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Republican backlash focused solely on his “ruined life,” with no regard for the millions of women whose rights would be in his hands.
If Harvard had not rescinded Kashuv’s admission, the message sent to black students at the school would be clear: The safety and comfort of an entire community on campus was less important than the “redemption” of a young racist.
At the end of the day, that’s what conservatives are mad about: They can’t do and say whatever they want without being held accountable, that the privileges they feel entitled to — whether admission to Harvard or a seat on the Supreme Court — are no longer sure things.