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Reunions and social change

Over this weekend I went to my college reunions – it was my class’s 60th. By tradition, we hold a parade. Starting with the Old Guard, we march, or ride in golf carts as we are able, from central campus down to the football stadium. Classes that haven’t started their march, line up along the parade route, cheering the older classes and, of course, we return the cheers to them. There’s a lot of hoopla and college spirit – but there’s more.

When I went to Princeton, it was a men’s school – there were no women in any of our classes. And our graduating class had only one Black classmate – the result of former University and US President Woodrow Wilson’s racist policies. Our Black classmate is a lovely man who’s been a great credit to the school.

As we progress from the oldest to newest classes, we pass the point where the first women were admitted and graduated, and where we can see the results of the school’s decision to end Wilson’s exclusion of Blacks from the student body. The classes lining the parade route were more and more diverse and we welcomed each other with cheers.

We were parading in 90-plus degree weather, so at the end of the route, my wife and I stopped in the campus center to cool off, get some refreshment, and, while using the necessary facilities – where else – I struck up a conversation with a couple of students of color. As we talked, they wanted to know what I thought of the whole concept of “woke” or “wokeness.” That’s related to awareness of racial discrimination but I can’t define it precisely because it’s meaning depends on the user. It was clear they were uncomfortable with the way it was being used. One of them wanted a simple answer from me like I’m for or against it but his friend encouraged him to hear the more nuanced answer I wanted to give.

My point was that ALL movements go too far – they have to – partly because the more they accomplish the more they have to move the goalposts in order to keep going. And as movements gather adherents, some issues can become harder to discuss. That’s pretty normal human behavior. I’m not going to abandon the cause of equal and civil rights because some people have, in my view, done things that are counterproductive at the expense of the major objectives.

Princeton used to have a student body dominated by young men from the South – a tradition that actually goes back to colonial times. But some of my classmates went south with the Freedom Rides, risking their lives and bodies in busses challenging segregation in the heart of the Segregated and Klan-dominated South. Others, as lawyers, battled for equality in courts around the country. I’ve become increasingly proud of my classmates the more I’ve learned about their efforts. And all our hearts were gladdened as we paraded, seeing wonderful young men and women, of all parental, religious and racial origins, lining the route and cheering us old folks on.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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