“Racism” Revisited

Once again as I near the end of preparation for the publication of my book I reprint a previous post that will appear in that book. I apologize to those who demand originality — though a few years ago this was an original!

CAN A BOOK BE “RACIST”?
(2/21/13)
I recall having a discussion with a colleague years ago about racism. I accused him of being racist in his grading policies since he graded his minority students more leniently than he did his other students. He objected that this couldn’t be racism, since he was treating the minority students more favorably. I thought that treating his students differently because of their race — regardless of how he treated them — was still racist, that that all students should be held to the same standards. I still think that is right, though I am not nearly so sure as I was at that time. In fact, I am not nearly so sure about many things I was sure of 20 or 30 years ago!
But the question of what constitutes “racism” is a tricky one. Chinua Achebe, the African novelist, wrote a scathing attack on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because Conrad’s narrator, Marlowe, uses the “N” word repeatedly. I have mentioned Achebe’s essay before, but it deserves extended comment.
Achebe insisted that the book was “racist” and that people should not read it for that reason. I published an essay defending Conrad on the grounds that while some books might be called such, this one is not. The fact that the narrator used an offensive term in a novella set in the early part of the twentieth century was simply an accurate depiction of the way people used the word in those days. In addition, it is not clear that Conrad himself can be accused of racism, and his novella certainly didn’t encourage or, worse yet, promote racism.
On the contrary. I argued that if you read the novella carefully you can see that it is the Europeans who are under attack. The native people in the novel are in every way superior to the whites who are there to exploit them and their continent in a greedy attempt to take everything they can profit from– especially, in this case, ivory. We know from reading Conrad’s biography, furthermore, that he was sickened by what he saw when he visited the Congo late in his years with the British merchant navy.
What was happening in Achebe’s case, I felt, was that he was unable to get past Marlowe’s use if the “N” word, which is offensive to the people so designated — now. Out of deference to black people we should assuredly not use a term they find offensive, even though they might use it themselves. The one who is the target certainly is in a position to determine what words are or are not offensive. But it makes no sense to accuse a man who wrote in 1902 of being “racist” if he is using language that was not regarded as offensive at that time. Edith Wharton, among many of her generation, uses the term as well. And there are other terms that were in general use at the time that we now recognize as offensive and it would be a mistake to dismiss those writers out of hand because they weren’t able to determine 50 or 60 years down the road what words would be found offensive by future readers.
One of the common practices in our schools, in so far as any of these books are read at all in the schools, is to substitute acceptable words for the offensive ones, thereby protecting the young from the words that might offend someone even at the cost of altering the nature of the work being read. I am not sure where I come down on this question, because I have such a high regard for great writers and object to any attempt to alter their works. But I am not the one being targeted by the offensive terms, so I don’t really have anything to say about it.
In the end, though, I would prefer if the kids were to read the books as they were written and the teachers used the reading as an opportunity to talk about racism and the language that some find offensive. It seems to me that we are missing out on an excellent educational opportunity. Again.

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Conditional Optimism

In an interesting post on his blog, Bruce Schneier comments on Harvard psychology professor Stephen Pinker’s claim that the world is becoming less violent and more moral. Specifically, he tells us:

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker convincingly makes the point that by pretty much every measure you can think of, violence has declined on our planet over the long term. More generally, “the world continues to improve in just about every way.” He’s right, but there are . . .  important caveats.
One, he is talking about the long term. The trend lines are uniformly positive across the centuries and mostly positive across the decades, but go up and down year to year. While this is an important development for our species, most of us care about changes year to year — and we can’t make any predictions about whether this year will be better or worse than last year in any individual measurement.

Pinker’s claim is based on large numbers and long-term predictions and his provocative thesis (especially in light of the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency) is summarized in the following paragraph from the book mentioned by Schneier:

Beware of headlines. And beware of statistics from advocacy organizations whose funding stream depends on stoking fear and outrage — I’ve learned that they can never be taken at face value.
There are reasons to doubt that we’re seeing a big post-Trump rise in hate crimes. Rates of hate crime tend to track rates of overall crime, and there was an uptick of both in 2015, before Trumpism.
Indeed, Trump capitalized on the crime uptick to sow panic about the state of the nation, and progressives foolishly ceded the issue to him. Moment-by-moment analyses of Google searches by the data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz show that Islamophobia strongly tracks incidents of terrorism with Muslim perpetrators. So hate crimes will probably depend more on overall crime rates and — in the case of Islamophobic hate crimes — on terrorist attacks than on a general atmosphere created by Trump.
More generally, the worldwide, decades-long current toward racial tolerance is too strong to be undone by one man. Public opinion polls in almost every country show steady declines in racial and religious prejudice­ — and more importantly for the future, that younger cohorts are less prejudiced than older ones. As my own cohort of baby boomers (who helped elect Trump) dies off and is replaced by millennials (who rejected him in droves), the world will become more tolerant.
It’s not just that people are increasingly disagreeing with intolerant statements when asked by pollsters, which could be driven by a taboo against explicit racism. Stephens-Davidowitz has shown that Google searches for racist jokes and organizations are sensitive indicators of private racism. They have declined steadily over the past dozen years, and they are more popular in older than younger cohorts.

Regarding Pinker’s claim that racial tolerance is on the rise world-wide, I would add that many believe the movement in this country toward alternative energies has gained enough momentum to withstand the machinations of Donald Trump and Big Oil.  These are good things, indeed. I suggest that we would be wise to listen to Pinker and tone down our collective panic at the thought of Donald Trump just 90 seconds away from nuclear holocaust. Pinker claims he is himself “conditionally optimistic” about the future.

But, at the same time, it is also wise to be cautious and watch the magician’s other hand to see what he is likely to pull out of his hat. It is one thing to predict that morality is improving — what with such things as the reduction of extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality together with the spread of democracy — which brings with it (along with widespread apathy in this country) increased political freedom for a great many people previously held in chains. It is quite another thing to turn a blind eye to the fact that our president-elect brings with him luggage filled with racism, hatred, suspicion, and a tendency to act on impulse that does not bode well for the future of this country and indeed the world — short term or long.

On balance, one can find some solace in the words of Pinker and hope that his optimism is well founded and not merely pie-in-the-sky. We need to look back in order to try to anticipate what might happen in the future. And it is good to try to think long-term. But we also know that the future is liable to variables that were not in play in the past — such things as automatic weapons in the hands of growing numbers of frustrated, angry people; indifference disguised as tolerance; and the nuclear codes in the pocket of a rather tempestuous man who refers to those who disagree with him as “enemies.” In a word, we all need to take a deep breath and try to relax, but we also need to maintain our vigil.

 

 

Concerned Students

You may have read about the football team at the University of Missouri that has refused to play again until the president of the university resigns his post. The story reads, in part:

Several African-American Missouri students have been protesting what they say is systematic racism on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus. The latest incident came Oct. 24 when a swastika made of feces was smeared on the wall of a dorm bathroom. . . .Jonathan Butler, is on a hunger strike until [President] Wolfe is removed from his position.

Prior to that, Payton Head, the head of the Missouri Students Association, said several people in a passing truck yelled racial slurs at him while he was walking. And several other groups and individuals have noted racist treatment while on campus.

This is a serious situation indeed and the actions of the students, which have been supported by the rest of the team and the coach, are to be applauded. It is refreshing to see students interested in something other than sports and the upcoming party. But, I must ask, is this the issue to focus attention upon? To be sure, it touches directly many of the students who are black and others who are in sympathy with them. This is clear and not at all a bad thing. But, again, we see action being taken because of an issue that is fiercely personal and touches these athletes directly. What about larger issues?

Political activism is a part of our heritage. We are a nation founded on protest and a willingness to fight for principles. But what are the principles here? Racism is a fact of life and it should not be. That much is clear. But there are huge problems “out there” away from the campus that the students seem to be unaware of despite the fact that they affect those students and athletes directly and which, while seemingly not personal, will make their lives a terrible struggle in coming years. I speak, of course, of things such as global warming, the torture of other human beings by our government, expanding human populations, the continuing buildup of weapons of mass destruction around the world, not to mention the continued party bickering by our elected officials who should be turning their collective attention to those very issues.

Students in the past have occasionally protested such things as the investments of their universities in companies that threaten the planet and this strikes me as very laudable. These protests have been small, however, and have had fair results at places like Harvard University. But the irony here is that the protest at Missouri involves more students and those students are athletes in a sport that is of vital concern to the students themselves and the boosters who will, eventuality, put enough pressure on the president to resign — I predict. Therefore, they will get results, after which things will go back to normal. After all, we can’t have a Saturday afternoon at a NCAA Division I school pass without a rally, a big game and a party after.*

The irony I am reaching for here is that this is a tempest in a teapot compared to the larger issues that the students are simply unaware of or indifferent to. This problem will be quickly resolved while the larger ones continue to be ignored.  Their education should make these students ready to protest issues much larger than racism, issues that affect all of us and all of our children and their children as well. Racism is ugly and should not be tolerated. But so are the larger issues mentioned above which, for the most part, continue to be ignored by college and university students. This fact alone is an indictment of our educational system which should be teaching these students to get worked up over issues that may not affect them immediately and directly today, but are much larger and more threatening to themselves, and the rest of us, in the long run.

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  • Within hours of drafting this post President Wolfe resigned.

Uncomfortable People

The removal of Jon Greenberg from his teaching position in a Seattle High School is disturbing for a number of reasons. Apparently, Mr. Greenberg taught a course called “Citizenship and Justice” that employed what is called the “courageous conversations” teaching method that encouraged honest confrontations among students about their personal experiences of racial discrimination and injustice. The course had been taught successfully for ten years but recently a student complained to her parents that the course made her feel uncomfortable because Greenberg “created an intimidating educational environment.” Her parents complained to the school board who removed Mr. Greenberg from his position and moved him elsewhere. The story contains a brief, but telling, comment by another teacher in the same school system who suggests that the move will have ramifications:

Teachers at the Center School are concerned that the school board’s disapproval of the Courageous Conversations engagement tactics will have a chilling effect throughout the school district.

Doug Edelstein, a teacher at another Seattle public high school says he worries how it will affect discussions about other controversial topics.

“That it will create a chilling effect is an understatement,” Edelstein told The Seattle Times. “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.”

There can be little doubt that the decision by the school board will have a “chilling effect” on the teaching of controversial subjects throughout the Seattle school system — if not beyond. Whenever a teacher is told that he or she must steer away from certain subjects, or teach the subject differently — by an administrator or the administrator’s superiors — the results will invariably be felt throughout the system. It is not simply a matter of academic freedom, which is a value recently honored more in the breach than in the observance. It is a matter of an open system that is designed to help students think for themselves as opposed to a system in which students are simply taught what to think and when to think it. In a word, it is the difference between a system that focuses on education, properly conceived, and education reduced to training. The people in Seattle should be disturbed by the fact that their school board seems to want their schools to turn out robots rather than thinking adults.

But there is a feature of this story that disturbs me even more: it is the notion that a student can complain to her parents and the result is that the entire weight of the Seattle school bureaucracy is brought down on the shoulders of a man who is, from all reports, a stellar teacher of young people. As Edelstein said, “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.” No doubt. No one individual should have that sort of power. And those who call for more involvement in the schools by the parents might do well to think about the involvement of this student’s parents in this particular course. It’s not that unusual for the parents to side with the administration against the teacher (and vice versa) when they think their child has been mistreated.

Academic freedom is a precious and absolutely necessary value to defend in our schools at all levels. Teachers must not be told what to teach, though if what they teach turns out to be offensive there must be a way for the student to withdraw from that course without penalty if he or she is made to feel “uncomfortable.” But the truth often makes people feel “uncomfortable,” and we must be wary of those who want people fired or silenced simply because they make us feel uncomfortable. Our problem is, on the whole, we are much too comfortable and as Arnold Toynbee said years ago, humans cease to think when that is the case.

Racism and Fried Chicken

You may (of may not) have heard about the brew-ha-ha between the professional golfers Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods. They don’t like each other. That much is clear. After Tiger recently won the Players Championship Garcia complained that Woods had made noise drawing a club from his bag during Sergio’s back-swing — as he was about to hit his drive. Woods later said the Marshalls had told him Garcia had finished his stroke, though the Marshalls later denied having said anything (indeed, why should they say anything?). In any event, Woods complained that Garcia was “whining,” and when later asked if he had given any thought to picking up the phone and suggesting to Sergio that the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot and they should have done with petty quarrels. Woods simply said, “No.” Soon after, Garcia was asked if he was going to have dinner with Woods and the following exchange took place that is now causing a bit of a storm:

COMMENTARY | Sergio Garcia crossed a line Monday he never should have toed.

At the European Tour’s annual gala dinner ahead of its flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship in England, Garcia responded to a question asking if he would have dinner with Tiger Woods at next month’s U.S. Open at Merion.

His reply, according to The Guardian: “We will have him round every night. We will serve fried chicken.”

The comment about “fried chicken” is universally regarded as racist, since it alludes to the preference for fried chicken that is stereotypically associated with African-Americans. Fuzzy Zoeller, a lesser player than Garcia, had made a similar comment in 1997 following the Masters Tournament and is still apologizing for it. It is hard to live such a thing down, and Sergio is now busy attempting to back-track, though one suspects we have not heard the last of it. The media will keep it alive as long as possible — perhaps even longer!

But it is hard to like Tiger Woods, despite the fact that he is perhaps the greatest golfer who has ever played the game. His life is an embarrassment, given his sexual preference for a variety of women other than the one he happened to be married to — who also happens to be the mother of his children. All signs suggest that he is a typical self-absorbed American athlete who cares about nothing but himself. He lives the grand life-style so many Americans identify with success and would love to emulate; this may explain his immense popularity, though, here again, we must wonder how people are able to separate the man’s wealth and athletic ability from his character and adulate a man whose every action suggests a dwarfed consciousness limited to self with little or no awareness, much less concern, for his fellow humans. His psychic makeup may be explained, I suppose, by his doting father and mother while an only child growing up and the attention that has been heaped on him subsequently — not to mention the millions of dollars he rakes in each year with his putter and his winning smile. But, again, America’s fascination with this man, who appears almost daily on sports shows even when he is playing badly, defies adequate explanation. In fact, America’s ability to separate an athlete’s on-field behavior from his off-field shenanigans and indiscretions does give one pause. Here again we come back to what makes a person worth admiring: do we really forgive a man or a woman anything if he or she happens to be good at hitting a ball, skiing downhill at breakneck speeds, or dodging would-be tacklers? It appears we do.

In any event, I’m not black, but I like fried chicken and would be happy to join Sergio for a meal. However, I have no desire whatever to sit down to a meal or even a casual chat with Tiger Woods. I don’t like what the man is even though I admire what he can do with a golf club. And it has nothing whatever to do with his race: it’s because of something Martin Luther King spoke about long ago; namely, “the content of his character.”

All Dressed In White

One of the more bizarre incidents I have come across recently involved three students who attended a high school hockey game involving Red River High School and Fargo Davies High School in North Dakota. A recent fad in the area is to attend high school hockey games dressed in white — as the students do at the University of North Dakota.  But these three students (?) decided to dress in Ku Klux Klan outfits, complete with hoods and eye slits. A photograph was taken by a visiting student who was aware enough to wonder if the three were “racist,” and the incident has drawn considerable reaction in the region.

But the thing that interested me the most was the comment by the Athletic Director, Todd Olson, presumably an adult. Olson attempted to dismiss the incident as a tempest in a teapot — you know, kids will be kids. No, Todd, kids just being kids is when they wear tee shirts to a game in a hockey rink where the temperatures are low enough to freeze the nipples off a brass monkey. But Todd persists,  “To be very honest, I think you’re looking for something that is not there.”  Wrong again, Todd, there is something there and it is called “ignorance,” and as an educator you should be doing everything you can to eradicate it wherever you see it.

Photo From "Inforum"

Photo From “Inforum”

In this day we have come to expect the unexpected from young people. Further, we also expect the kids to be ignorant of their history and have no idea how offensive those hoods might be to minorities in this country who have had to deal with the hatred and prejudice of twisted minds for years in the South. And, granted, the likelihood of a black student attending a high school hockey game in North Dakota is slim indeed, still one would hope that the adults in this school would try to make this a learning experience for those kids and perhaps teach them a bit about American history, race hatred, and white prejudice. At the very least someone might have approached the three and suggested that they remove the hoods — if not themselves.

One of the truly disturbing things about the incident is that it involved young people who are supposed to be open-minded and liberal in their thinking: many see them as the hope for our future, even though recent studies have shown that they are even more self-absorbed and stressed out than their parents are. But even if we assume that those three students, presumably, who wore those robes thought it would be funny and had no idea what they were doing — which is a distinct possibility — one would think that at some point before they sat down, or during the game, someone around them would have pointed out how inappropriate their behavior is. Clearly the student who took the picture realized how offensive it was, but he only made the comment later, after going public with the photograph.

Given all the negative fall-out from the incident, we can hope that the school will, in fact, turn the situation to their advantage and make of it an object lesson. And they might start by having a long talk with Todd Olson.

Can A Book Be Racist?

I recall having a discussion with a colleague years ago about racism. I accused him of being racist in his grading policies since he graded his minority students more leniently than he did his other students. He objected that this couldn’t be racism, since he was treating the minority students more favorably. I thought that treating his students differently because of their race — regardless of how he treated them — was still racist, that that all students should be held to the same standards. I still think that is right, though I am not nearly so sure as I was at that time. In fact, I am not nearly so sure about many things I was sure of 20 or 30 years ago!

But the question of what constitutes “racism” is a tricky one. As I noted in a blog several months ago, Chinua Achebe, the African novelist, wrote a scathing attack on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because Conrad’s narrator, Marlowe, uses the “N” word repeatedly. Achebe insisted that the book was “racist” and that people should not read it for that reason. I published an essay defending Conrad on the grounds that while some books might be called such, this one is not. The fact that the narrator used an offensive term in a novella set in the early part of the twentieth century was simply an accurate depiction of the way people used the word in those days. In addition, it is not clear that Conrad himself can be accused of racism, and his novella certainly didn’t encourage or, worse yet, promote racism. On the contrary. I argued that if you read the novella carefully you can see that it is the Europeans who are under attack. The native people in the novel are in every way superior to the whites who are there to exploit them and their continent in a greedy attempt to take everything they can profit from– especially, in this case, ivory. We know from reading Conrad’s biography, furthermore, that he was sickened by what he saw when he visited the Congo late in his years with the British merchant navy.

What was happening in Achebe’s case, I felt, was that he was unable to get past Marlowe’s use if the “N” word, which is offensive to the people so designated — now. Out of deference to black people we should assuredly not use a term they find offensive, even though they might use it themselves. The one who is the target certainly is in a position to determine what words are or are not offensive. But it makes no sense to accuse a man who wrote in 1902 of being “racist” if he is using language that was not regarded as offensive at that time. Edith Wharton, for example, uses the term as well. And there are other terms that were in general use at the time that we now recognize as offensive and it would be a mistake to dismiss those writers out of hand because they weren’t able to determine 50 or 60 years down the road what words would be found offensive by future readers.

One of the common practices in our schools, in so far as any of these books are read at all in the schools, is to substitute acceptable words for the offensive ones, thereby protecting the young from the words that might offend someone even at the cost of altering the nature of the work being read. I am not sure where I come down on this question, because I have such a high regard for great writers and object to any attempt to alter their works. But I am not the one being targeted by the offensive terms, so I don’t really have anything to say about it. In the end, though, I would prefer if the kids were read the books as they were written and the teachers used the reading as an opportunity to talk about racism and the language that some find offensive. It seems to me that we are missing out on an excellent educational opportunity.  It’s a tough call.

Nostalgia, Satire, and Bigotry

The satirical Onion (“America’s Finest News Service”) has a provocative article that begins as follows:

WASHINGTON—With just days left before the election, the nation’s 150 million registered voters have started to remember the simple, reassuring comforts of entrusting control of their country to an extremely out-of-touch white man, sources confirmed Monday.

In the wake of the presidential debates, multiple polls have shown that citizens nationwide are beginning to recall, with great clarity, the soothing, familiar sense of security that comes with handing total domestic and foreign policy authority over to a sixtysomething white male who is completely cut off from any way of life other than his own. And with the country having gone four years without such a familiar, calming, clueless Caucasian presence in the Oval Office, experts reported the populace is now overcome with nostalgia.

I have blogged before about how this country is easily taken in by images — especially the ones recently seen on Debate TV. Though clearly tongue-in-cheek, this article makes an important point. It cites “studies” that have shown we want the comforting image of a sixty-something white man with grey on his temples to take us by the hand and lead us into the next four years. True or not, it would seem plausible given the level of fear and uncertainty in the country.

I recall a bit by stand-up comic Shelley Berman back in the 60s when the comedian mimicked a calm and soothing voice coming over the speaker on an airplane just prior to takeoff: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Captain Holbrook speaking…” and Berman, who professed to be scared to death to fly, cut in and said “It’s Daddy! Daddy’s taking us flying!” The same sort of thing might very well be going on in this election. How else to account for the fact that millions of people in this country plan to vote for a man with as many faces as Eve who lies through his teeth while showing himself unwilling to retract his falsehoods in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary? Daddy’s going to make things right. Daddy’s taking care of us. Obama doesn’t fit that image: he’s the wrong color.

A recent study reveals that more than half of the white people in this nation are prejudiced against black people. I dare say many Hispanics also have their prejudices, as do the Blacks themselves. Prejudice seems to be a common human attribute and plays no color favorites. But we did manage to elect a black President the last time around, although the more reliable pundits tell us he will lose the popular vote this time. They also say, thank heavens, he will win the electoral college vote and be reelected. When this happens it will result in immediate calls by the Romneyites and their minions to trash the electoral college which is an eighteenth century invention designed to safeguard the country from idiots in high political office. It hasn’t worked since politics is overrun with idiots, but the electoral college may be short-lived after this election if the corporations that pull the political strings have to deal with the fact that it interfered with the election of their man.

In any event, it will be interesting to see how many fools in this country buy into the comforting image of a duplicitous businessman who was handed success on a platter and is out of touch with practically everyone around him who doesn’t happen to belong to his country club. If Mitt Romney wins the popular vote, as predicted, it will tell us something about ourselves we may not want to know. To paraphrase Lincoln let’s hope you can’t fool enough people this time around, that the voters in this country aren’t that easily duped and just maybe are a bit less bigoted than we have been led to believe. Time will tell.