AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A survivor of the Parkland shooting recently found out he won't be entering Harvard University as a freshman after all.
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KYLE KASHUV: So a few weeks ago, I was made aware of some extremely terrible things I said when I was 16 - so about two years ago, months before the shooting. I immediately apologized not because I had to; because it was the right thing to do.
CORNISH: Kyle Kashuv made his case to the university, but Harvard stuck with the decision. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been reporting on this topic. She's here to explain. Hey there, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So let's talk about those terrible things he was made aware of. Who is Kyle Kashuv?
KAMENETZ: So like many of his Parkland classmates, Kashuv became a national figure after the shooting. But unlike many of them, he did so as a right-wing gun rights activist with the NRA as well as a group called Turning Point USA. And after he was accepted to Harvard, some of his former classmates made some statements available to the media that he had made in private text messages and a shared Google doc with his classmates and on Skype messaging. And these were multiple uses of the N-word, referring to the sexual preferences of some of his classmates and various other offensive statements.
CORNISH: So these were all private messages, though. Why are we hearing about his story now?
KAMENETZ: Well, so after his classmates made this a news story, Kashuv himself chose to post to Twitter all of the details of his correspondence with Harvard's admissions office, including his attempts to apologize and explain himself and their decision to revoke his admissions. And that's approximately when this became a national media story.
CORNISH: Right. So what we're seeing on the news today is his attempt to defend himself. Here's a video he released to that end.
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KASHUV: I don't believe Harvard is an institution that is racist, that is bigoted, that is sexist. I don't think that because I think that institutions can grow and people can change. This isn't about me anymore; it's whether we live in a society where people can grow, where people can change.
CORNISH: Let's talk about the argument he's making, beginning with the idea that it's not about him anymore.
KAMENETZ: So Kashuv is pointing the finger at Harvard and saying, you know, it was founded by slave holders. People can change. It's fair to point out, I think, that Kashuv is not claiming to have evolved on racial issues. He said to Harvard that he bore no racial animus when he used some of those words. Now, this is an argument that has a bigger context. I talked to Jessie Daniels, a sociologist at City University of New York. She studies the growth of the far right online. And she says Kashuv's association with Turning Point USA in particular makes his statements more than just youthful provocation. She calls them both hate speech and a form of political action.
JESSIE DANIELS: This kind of provoking and using language to provoke is very much in the playbook of the far right and has been for, you know, a good 20 years now.
CORNISH: How does this case compare, though, to the case two years ago, when 10 students lost their admission to Harvard because of their social media posts?
KAMENETZ: These two examples of casual, provocative racism by white, privileged teenagers that then gets pushback from an elite university really kind of begs the question, how did these young people land on these statements being what is edgy or shocking to say? Daniels and other scholars have documented that this is no accident. It's actually the payoff to decades of concerted efforts by committed white supremacists and neo-Nazis online to position these very old racist tropes as being fresh and exciting.
CORNISH: At the end of the day, this has become one of those kind of, like, cultural political footballs. What's the broader message here?
KAMENETZ: You know, Daniels really calls this a perfect storm because groups like Turning Point USA, other far-right groups have latched onto higher education as the spot where their culture wars are going to happen and where there's a pushback between, you know, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to say on the one hand, political correctness on the other. And this is all somehow positioned as an argument over free speech. And I think that seems to be what's playing out here.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Anya, thanks so much.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Audie.
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