When I was growing up, in Kansas City, Missouri, I didn’t know anyone who had gone to college. No one in my family had ever gone; almost everyone found work in the city’s ever-growing service sector, learned a trade, or joined the military. College seemed like a good idea, though I knew as much about how to get there as I did how to pilot a space shuttle. What little I knew about college life I gleaned from the TV series “A Different World.” From the exploits of the math whiz Dwayne Wayne and the Southern belle Whitley Gilbert at Hillman College I understood that, whatever it got right or wrong, college offered two things: a place where you could debate ideas, and a place where there were no guns.
This was hardly inconsequential. When I was thirteen, a boy who played in the same summer baseball league as me was shot and killed, the first of many people I knew who would fall victim to gun violence. By the time I was sixteen, the nationwide crack epidemic had compounded the problem; house parties and Saturday nights at the skating rink routinely ended with gunfire. At seventeen, as I prepared for graduation, a kid pulled a gun on me for going out with his friend’s ex-girlfriend. For most freshmen, college represents the onset of adulthood, burgeoning independence, the first tentative steps in pursuit of one’s dreams. For me, it was all these things, but it was also an escape from danger. I followed my interests, engaging in student activism and becoming a poet, taking a break from school to start my own family before returning to take my B.A. in history and consider graduate school. Back in Kansas City, my brother was coming to terms with an environment in which you assumed that everyone you met had a gun and was prepared to use it. I was twenty-three when he was shot and killed. He had just turned eighteen.
Having earned my Ph.D., I now hold a faculty position at the University of Texas at Austin. Fate can sometimes have a morbid sense of irony. Last June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 11. The law, which went into effect in August, allows anyone with a license to carry a handgun to bring a handgun onto campus, and even into the classroom. Private universities and colleges can ban guns on their campuses, but public universities must comply. It is a strange, unpleasant twist to this saga that the law went into effect on the fiftieth anniversary of the U.T. Tower massacre, in which a heavily armed sniper took position in the campus’s clock tower and killed fourteen people walking on campus, injuring dozens more.
A New York Times story about the first week of classes after the law took effect revealed that students are, in fact, bringing guns to class; one showed a photographer his holstered .45 in a library on campus. In mid-September, faculty members from two different buildings reported having found bullet casings on departmental bulletin boards. One was left with a note that read, “In the land of the pigs, the butcher is king. OINK . . . OINK . . . OINK.” Another was accompanied by a note that asked, “Triggered?”
The law’s effect can be felt in another way, too. In June, Harry Edwards, a noted sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped organize the 1968 Olympic protests, announced that he was rescinding all association with the University of Texas. (The Harry Edwards Lecture on Sport and American Culture had been launched there, in 2014, in conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.) During the first week of classes this semester, Karla F. C. Holloway, the James B. Duke Professor of English & Professor of Law at Duke University, also withdrew her acceptance of an invitation to speak at U.T.’s Institute for Literary and Textual Studies. These were only two of several such refusals by teachers to come speak at or take positions at U.T.
As the coördinator of the Diaspora Talk lecture series, which brings black-studies scholars from across the country to U.T., I now must confront a new reality. The first scheduled Diaspora Talk speaker for this year was Ruha Benjamin, a faculty member in African-American studies at Princeton University, who specializes in science, medicine, and technology, among other things. Benjamin penned an insightful letter informing us of her decision not to speak at U.T., which captures so much of what is disconcerting about campus carry, gun violence, and the failure to address this ongoing public-health crisis in a meaningful way. In it, she wrote of her sister-in-law, who was murdered in a mass shooting at her workplace, in Kansas, and of her recent dismay at a lockdown at U.C.L.A., where she used to work, after a gunman killed his professor and then himself. She also informed us that, in June, just hours after delivering a lecture at the Colorado Convention Center, she found herself in a building lockdown again, as a gunman entered a nearby office building and committed another murder-suicide. “These tragedies make me extremely concerned about the safety of not only myself, but other faculty, staff, and students,” Benjamin wrote.
Supporters of campus carry talk about the right of citizens to defend themselves, which, they suggest, could help avert another mass shooting on campuses. They hypothesize that a scared, poorly trained student or faculty member could navigate a hail of bullets to retaliate against a shooter. For many faculty members, gun violence is less of an abstraction. These realities are part of why we engage one another intellectually. Ultimately, some of us hope to have a positive impact on gun laws, to alter societal understandings of policing, and to examine the underpinnings of the kinds of tragedies seen in Ferguson, Charleston, and Orlando.
Faculty members have generally opposed campus carry because they suspect that allowing guns in the classroom will hinder our ability to teach about controversial subjects such as state surveillance, sexuality, race and racism, and radical social movements. Many of us entered the profession without knowing that we would have to consider whether a student who is upset about his grade, uncomfortable with a lecture on black queer sexuality, or disagrees with our placing slavery and white supremacy at the center of American history might have a gun holstered on his waist. We chose our profession believing that, while we might encounter resistance to new ideas, we could safely push our students to think more deeply about their inherited beliefs and assumptions. Campus carry undermines this kind of critical debate. I can’t help but think that this is what the architects of campus carry wanted. Still, the quest for the freedom to learn must continue.
Minkah Makalani is an associate professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin.