First Amendment View: Times have changed, but racism has not

Editor’s Note: Students in the spring 2020 First Amendment seminar class (JL MC 497D) attended a lecture titled “How to be an Antiracist” by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Legacy Convocation in January at Iowa State University  They were asked to reflect on concepts of free speech and racism. This post reflects the student’s viewpoints and has been published on the Greenlee student experience blog with permission. 

By Cierra Williams, junior in journalism and mass communication

We are a melting pot of intellectual and powerful minds. Our flavors and spices merge to make a delicious dish that has no name other than unique. Martin Luther King Jr., saw this as our future. The ability for Black and white people to live together in unity without fear of racism or indifference. He sought to make it an American dream.

Times have changed, but racism has not.

Identifying as a Black woman, I hear comments that end with the phrase “for a brown-skinned girl.” For example, “You sure are smart … for a brown-skinned girl.” These ignorant statements haunt my interactions with individuals who aren’t people of color daily. I find myself trying to cope by ignoring the free speech of blissfully ignorant people. The “for someone like you” is drowned out by hope that someday it will click in someone’s head that it was an insensible thing to say.

Yet, when we look in the mirror, we see non-racists.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s speech shed light on the racist behavior many overlook within themselves. “We’re talking about how we are so divided and that we want to bring people together; we’re actually quite united … Americans commonly look in the mirror and see a non-racist,” he said.

This is the key takeaway in his speech.

I am an African American student at a predominantly white institution. As a college junior, I have studied my share of Martin Luther King Jr. lessons, but nothing of the magnitude of Dr. Kendi’s lecture.

Racism is a social construct that is taught, not genetically acquired. The things we see and hear over time take a front-row seat within our thinking, so we need an everyday practice toward anti-racism. Our own prejudices cloud our judgments to lean toward a more progressive society, thus ultimately dividing us more than ever.

Our First Amendment is meant to protect our speech so that we can freely express ourselves, but it can sometimes be in direct conflict with the idea of being antiracist. The First Amendment states. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

If an individual feels the need to express prejudices against another race through speech, it is protected for the most part, but it conflicts with the idea of equality. When we think of equality, we think of a leveled platform. A straight horizon where race, gender and more all meet in the middle without regard to past or present pain. Equality is simply the idea of fair treatment. If hate speech is allowed but censored when victims retaliate, then how can we truly consider our right to the First Amendment respected or equal? The real answer is we can’t. Hate speech has no real definition thus leaving us to fend for ourselves when it is used. It is protected but detrimental to the goal of equality.

Kendi used music to illustrate the idea of racism: “Black youth were considered to be violent; we were considered to be violent because we listened to too much hip-hop that was also violent,” he said. “Even though white kids would listen to the very same songs.”

Music is a form of expression, which is protected by the First Amendment, but is somehow considered “rowdy” and “violent” when recited by Blacks. The same standard is often not applied to whites. It is this way of thinking that bounds us from a brighter future.

Kendi’s speech influenced me to continue to use my voice to promote unity and to exercise my right to free speech in a manner that will encourage my peers.

Cierra Williams is a junior studying journalism and mass communication. Originally from the west side of Chicago, her interest in radio and music sparked her passion for telling stories through voice. She’s pursuing a career in radio/TV broadcast and dreams of being a renowned broadcast journalist.