Hate is a brute expression of power. At its most transparent, a cross burns on the lawn of a black family and a sign is posted in a storefront signaling who need not apply. Then, hate is motivated by a desire for power, a gruesome declaration of exactly who ought to belong. White Americans are trained to spot this kind of power grab, shown black-and-white diagrams in textbooks outlining racism like it’s some strain of poison oak that we can sketch, memorize and hop over on our way to get where we’re going. Yet when confronting bigotry that requires us to break stride, when an act of hate expresses a kind of social power from which we benefit, our response is often insufficient.
For nearly two decades, my generation has been asked to use our memory of 9/11 as a tool to build our national identity. In a nation increasingly torn apart by anger and mistrust, so rarely willing to deem any experience collective, such a tool is absolutely critical. Yet my memory of that day is a counterfeit. It’s just one still-frame, blurry behind the familiar haze of early childhood, and that has never been sufficient. I am of a narrow and specific cohort of people who have been taught to tell their story as Americans based on a day that we cannot really remember.
Two weeks ago, Cornell quietly put an end to a pretty good idea. In an email sent to 30 participants, the University announced the cancellation of the Foreign Student Employment Program for the coming year. It was a truly tiny program that served a narrow purpose: for $40,000 a year, or .001 percent of its annual operating budget, the University subsidized part-time work for a handful of foreign students. Yesterday, President Martha Pollack reversed course, announcing that the program would be reinstated. It was a small, acutely bad decision to end this program, and a commendable choice to bring it back.
His contributions and connections, all the constitutive elements of personhood in society, meant nothing when he was taken by an unmarked van. That his city wanted him here was unimportant — Ithaca’s sanctuary status meant very little as well.
Over the last several months, Cornell has suspended need-blind admissions for international students and considered doing the same for transfer applicants. More recently it has taken clear steps to actively dissuade its graduate students from forming a union, a clear violation of an agreement signed last May. For non-affluent students, rising tuition has made attending the University increasingly challenging and for some completely impossible. The point is, much as I do love this school, in many important ways attending Cornell is more like a hitchhiked ride than a chartered flight. Perhaps we are going to the same place — I would like a degree, and in general terms the University would like a student to have one, a student that might as well be me.
Thus there is a genuine terror, which I believe to be absolutely common, that my community might not think that I am the way I ought to be. This fear, I think, is at the heart of the aesthetic preoccupation that often drives our campus politics.
My grandfather may have been the world’s biggest proponent of the breakfast donut. He had an armchair in his living room, which I believe is a requirement for that position. From there he would dispense pastries to his incredulous grandchildren who simply did not know how to process what was happening to them. Having pacified us with morning cholesterol, he would ask us about the fourth grade, then suggest we all run for president. For a few weeks after he died, he trailed around behind me a little bit.
Several months ago I spent a straight-backed evening in a room that reminded me of mopping my father’s floors. They were paneled with what I believe to be a wood-flavored linoleum, which is really a great surface to clean. If I were ten years younger and living in a Norman Rockwell painting, I imagine it would have also been the best place to play marbles. Resilient and impossibly smooth, linoleum is the 20th century’s greatest gift to flooring. By some bizarre act of circumstance, I was invited to dinner with a handful of friends’ friends’ parents, who didn’t much resemble my friends.
My mother has a way of using gifts to assign required reading. She marks the inside sleeve with the month and year in which the task was handed down, and a little note reminding me who gave it. There’s a small mountain of these books out there, if you can find them. It’s really not an unreasonable tactic, and certainly not one that I resent. Coercion is, after all, the most direct thruway to the part of my brain with buttons and levers for doing things.