We have been discussing the battle over free speech on colleges and universities, particularly with the rise of protests and/or sanctions over “microaggressions” and speech deemed insulting or disparaging to any group. The latest such controversy is at Dartmouth College where a Kentucky Derby party hosted by Kappa Delta Epsilon was cancelled after protests that it was a racist demonstration. The objections however seem disconnected to the historical record of the race.
Starting in 2015, a group of Black Lives Matter protestors targeted the event as overtly racist and “recreating an Antebellum South atmosphere on the Ivy League campus.” The protesters referred to the party celebrating a “bastion of racism, exclusion and oppression.” They also chanted “What is Derby? It’s the face of genocide” and “What is Derby? It’s the face of police brutality.”
Critics have noted that the Derby does not have a record of police brutality. However, it is the historical assertions that have been most criticized. Kappa Delta Epsilon dropped the Kentucky Derby theme “because of its racial connotations.” KDE vice president Nikol Oydanich said “[It is] related to pre-war southern culture.” However, the first running of the Kentucky Derby was held in 1875 – during Reconstruction and a decade after the end of the war.
It was actually modeled not on Southern traditions but European traditions, particularly in England and France. In 1872, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., (grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition), came back from a trip in Europe to suggest a derby for racing horses. That race would ultimately be held at Churchill Downs and was incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937 — over 70 years after the Civil War.
As with the recent controversy at Bowdoin over students wearing sombreros or the controversy at Clemson for a Mexican food night, the question is the emerging standard for speech and associations on campuses. The Derby is a sporting event. Parties around the country allow people to have fun in betting on the fastest horses. Some like to put on the hats and fancy dress of the event. None of that makes it racist. More importantly, the standard appears to be not the intention or historical background for an event, but how it is perceived by others. If that is the standard, schools will find themselves on a slippery slope of speech and associational limits.
What do you think?