You don’t hear much about the United States being a “postracial society” these days, except when someone is dismissing bygone illusions of the late ’00s, or just being sarcastic. With the Obama era beginning to wind down (as of this week, the president has just under 18 months left in office) American life is well into its post-post-racial phase.
Two thoughts: (1) Maybe we should retire the prefix. All it really conveys is that succession does not necessarily mean progress. (2) It is easy to confuse an attitude of cold sobriety about the pace and direction of change with cynicism, but they are different things. For one, cynicism is much easier to come by. (Often it’s just laziness pretending to be sophisticated.) Lucid assessment, on the other hand, is hard work and not for the faint of spirit.
Naomi Zack’s White Privilege and Black Rights: The Injustice of U.S. Police Racial Profiling and Homicide (Rowman & Littlefield) is a case in point. It consists of three essays plus a preface and conclusion. Remarks by the author indicate it was prepared in the final weeks of last year, with the events in Ferguson, Mo., fresh in mind. But don’t let the title or the book’s relative brevity fool you. The author is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon -- and when she takes up terms such as “white privilege” or “black rights,” it is to scrutinize the concepts rather than to use them in slogans.
Despite its topicality, Zack’s book is less a commentary on recent events than part of her continuing effort to think, as a philosopher, about questions of race and justice that are long-standing, but also prone to flashing up, on occasion, with great urgency -- demanding a response, whether or not philosophers (or anyone else) is prepared to answer them.
Zack distinguishes between two ways of philosophizing about justice. One treats justice as an ideal that can be defined and reasoned about, even if no real society in human history ever “fully instantiates or realizes an ideal of justice for all members of that society.” Efforts to develop a theory of justice span the history of Western philosophy.
The other approach begins with injustice and seeks to understand and correct it. Of course, that implies that the philosopher already has some conception of what justice is -- which would seem to beg the question. But Zack contends that theories of justice also necessarily start out from pre-existing beliefs about what it is, which are then strengthened or revised as arguments unfold.
“However it may be done and whatever its subject,” Zack writes, “beginning with concrete injustice and ending with proposals for its correction is a very open-ended and indeterminate task. But it might be the main subject of justice about which people who focus on real life and history genuinely care.”
The philosopher Zack describes may not start out with a theory of what justice is. But that’s OK -- she can recognize justice, paradoxically enough, when it's gone missing.
I wish the author had clarified the approach in the book’s opening pages, rather than two-thirds of the way through, because it proves fundamental to almost everything else she says. She points out how police killings of young, unarmed African-American males over the past couple of years are often explained with references to “white privilege” and “the white supremacist system” -- examples of a sort of ad hoc philosophizing about racial injustice in the United States, but inadequate ones in Zack’s analysis.
Take the ability to walk around talking on the phone carrying a box of Skittles. It is not a “privilege” that white people enjoy, as should be obvious from the sheer absurdity of putting it that way. It is one of countless activities that a white person can pursue without even having to think about it. “That is,” Zack writes, “a ‘privilege’ whites are said to have is sometimes a right belonging to both whites and nonwhites that is violated when nonwhites are the ones who [exercise] it.”
In the words of an online comment the author quotes, “Not fearing the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.” The distinction is more than semantic. What Zack calls “the discourse of white privilege” not only describes reality badly but fosters a kind of moral masochism, inducing “self-paralysis in the face of its stated goals of equality.” (She implies that white academics are particularly susceptible to "hold[ing] … progressive belief structures in intellectual parts of their life that are insulated from how they act politically and privately …")
Likewise, “the white supremacist power structure” is a way of describing and explaining oppression that is ultimately incapacitating: “After the civil rights movement, overt and deliberate discrimination in education, housing and employment were made illegal and explicitly racially discriminatory laws were prohibited.” While “de facto racial discrimination is highly prevalent in desirable forms of education, housing and employment,” it does no one any good to assume that “an officially approved ideology of white supremacy” remains embodied in the existing legal order.
None of which should be taken to imply that Zack denies the existence of deep, persisting and tenacious racial inequality, expressed and reinforced through routine practices of violence and humiliation by police seldom held accountable for their actions. But, she says, "What many critics may correctly perceive as societywide and historically deep antiblack racism in the United States does not have to be thoroughly corrected before the immediate issue of police killings of unarmed young black men can be addressed."
She is not a political strategist; her analyses of the bogus logic by which racial profiling and police killings are rationalized are interesting but how to translate them into action is not exactly clear. But in the end, justice and injustice are not problems for philosophers alone.
The White House on Sunday announced the death of George Cooper, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In his career, Cooper was on the faculty of several historically black colleges, and was president of one, South Carolina State University. He was named to the post in 2013, amid concerns that the White House had moved too slowly to fill the position after John Silvanus Wilson Jr. departed to become president of Morehouse College. "George’s passing is a great loss for my administration, the HBCU and higher education communities, and for everyone that knew him," said the statement from President Obama.
Clemson University's board on Friday issued its second statement this year on Benjamin Tillman (right), a racist 19th-century politician for whom a prominent campus building is named. Students and faculty members have been pushing for years to change the name of Tillman Hall. In February, the board rejected the idea, saying, "Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen. Stone by stone they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones. And so it is with Clemson. Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so."
Friday's statement -- in the form of a board resolution -- did not make any promises about the building name. But it used much stronger language to describe Tillman. "Benjamin Tillman played a key role in the founding and early success of Clemson," the resolution said. "Benjamin Tillman was also known to be by his own admission an ardent racist and led a campaign of terror against African-Americans in South Carolina that included intimidation and violence of which he boasted about publicly; and for some members of our university family Benjamin Tillman’s legacy included not only contributions to Clemson University but also oppression, terror and hate."
The board also announced that it would create a task force "charged with creating a comprehensive plan to include, but not limited to, any recommendations regarding curating our historic buildings and memorials, developing better ways to acknowledge and teach the history of Clemson University, and exploring appropriate recognition of historical figures."
Media pundits agree: college students are politically correct, infantile whiners who can’t tolerate discomfort regarding their values or sense of identity. Versions of this narrative have become common in recent months as student activism has increased around issues of sexual assault, race-based discrimination and hate speech.
Descriptions of exaggerated behavior are trendy: Judith Shulevitz’s article for The New York Times in which she expresses concern about student hypersensitivity has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times since it was published in March. One anecdote from Shulevitz’s article, describing students’ creation of a “safe space” for sexual assault survivors that featured a video of puppies, has been recycled by thousands of other media outlets.
At Princeton University, we saw an uptick in student activism during the past academic year, including demonstrations and social media campaigns. I’ll admit that, like every college administrator, I’ve encountered a few student activists who are strident or immature. Some students reflexively oppose everything proposed by “the establishment,” and some don’t understand the concept of freedom of expression. These activists undermine their own causes by making themselves ripe for caricature.
But we should resist this dismissive depiction of college students, which uses the most egregious examples to mischaracterize the full range of activism. It’s seductive to buy in to this distortion because it allows colleges and universities, as well as the general public, to play down the causes for concern.
We can’t allow trivializing stories about the beliefs and behavior of a few students to distract us from the responsibility to prevent unfair and discriminatory experiences for those with minority identities.
Explicitly bigoted events still happen with painful regularity on campuses. This year, Bucknell University expelled three students for racist comments made on a radio program, and the Westchester County district attorney’s office is investigating images of swastikas and nooses spray painted in dormitories at the State University of New York’s Purchase campus. The University of Oklahoma closed a fraternity chapter after video footage surfaced of a racist chant by the chapter’s members.
When incidents are so extreme, colleges and universities typically respond with reprobation and swift disciplinary action. But many of the barriers to an inclusive campus climate are more nuanced and difficult to address. When students challenge their institutions about these issues, they are expressing real concerns about real experiences.
When Harvard undergraduates launched the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign in 2014, they used self-portraits to express the subtle ways in which they were made to feel isolated or stereotyped. “You don’t sound black … you sound smart,” one student recalled being told. The campaign has since spread to more than thirty universities on four continents.
Two new studies confirm that these interactions -- ranging from the small slights often labeled “microaggressions” to outright harassment -- are common and have lasting effects. One study (Caplan and Ford, 2014) describes the ways in which racism and sexism on four campuses undermined students’ academic performance and ability to take advantage of extracurricular offerings. A second project that surveyed students of color at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Harwood, Choi, Orozco, Huntt and Mendenhall, 2015) found similar outcomes.
On another front, student activists have pushed college administrators to respond more aggressively to sexual harassment and violence on campuses. Cases like the recent rape trial at Vanderbilt University get the most attention, but evidence continues to accumulate that the risks in general, particularly for young women, are inexcusably high.
In June, both a University of Michigan internal survey and a broad-based Washington Post poll reported that one in five women say that they were sexually assaulted in college.
These negative personal encounters are being exacerbated by anonymous social media platforms like Yik Yak. These apps, which work within a restricted radius close to campus, have become a well-documented vehicle for anonymous abuse, including racist, homophobic and sexist statements as well as threats of mass violence.
Examples like these remind us that issues of campus climate and safety are not just the fantasies of thin-skinned students. On the contrary, coping with these experiences requires resilience.
I won’t claim that students on my campus always knew how to organize effectively, or that their indignation was always well expressed. Contrary to the media portrayals, however, they were consistently constructive. Stimulated by the episodes of police brutality nationally, our students worked with faculty members and administrators to apply the problem-solving skills they were learning in the classroom and make recommendations to enhance the campus climate locally. Both the undergraduate and graduate student governments sponsored forums and referenda that provided useful feedback.
Let’s not allow cherry-picked examples and silly stereotypes to distract us from the responsibility of colleges and universities to guarantee equitable experiences. Nor should we underestimate the meaningful role that student activists can play.
This year is the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, when students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University decided that they would no longer tolerate segregated lunch counters. As the sit-ins spread to multiple cities, anxious college leaders disavowed the protests and tried to persuade the students to halt.
We can be grateful that the Greensboro students ignored their elders. Our students will ignore us, too, if we waste the opportunity to work with them to create the fair, inclusive environment that they deserve.
Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.
Student and faculty leaders at Ohio University are calling for Steven Schoonover, one of the institution's major donors, to leave the foundation board because of an email message that recently surfaced, The Columbus Dispatch reported. In the email, Schoonover said that officials should “play the race card” against critics of a controversial plan to buy a new mansion for the president. (The current president is African-American.) “So if you are worried about the petition by the faculty just play the race card and call them racists and make them defend themselves!” he wrote.
Joe McLaughlin, former chair of the Faculty Senate and associate professor of English, said, “It’s something that has no place in an academic community or any kind of community. This guy should have absolutely nothing to do with anything at Ohio University.”
Last month, the journal Science received heavy criticism over an advice piece widely called sexist for encouraging a female scientist not to take seriously an adviser's pattern of looking at her chest, not her face, when they talked. The journal ended up pulling the column.
Now Science is being criticized for running another piece that some find sexist. This piece is mostly about getting noticed to advance one's career, and the importance of hard work. The portion of the piece drawing criticism says: "I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife -- also a Ph.D. scientist -- worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities."
Editors at the careers section of Science did not respond to email requests for comment. The author of the piece, Eleftherios P. Diamandis, head of clinical biochemistry at a hospital of the University of Toronto, said via email that he had seen the criticisms. "It is a free world; all opinions respected," he wrote. He added, "If I stayed home, would my wife be sexist?"
Twelve Native American women who are scholars of Native American studies have issued an open letter on Andrea Smith, a professor at the University of California at Riverside who is widely viewed as having falsely claimed for years to be Cherokee. (She is not current responding to questions about the matter). The letter, published in Indian Country Today, says that the discussions about Smith have caused a range of reactions, and that many worry about damage the field.
"Our concerns are about the profound need for transparency and responsibility in light of the traumatic histories of colonization, slavery and genocide that shape the present," says the letter. "Andrea Smith has a decades-long history of self-contradictory stories of identity and affiliation testified to by numerous scholars and activists, including her admission to four separate parties that she has no claim to Cherokee ancestry at all. She purportedly promised to no longer identify as Cherokee, and yet in her subsequent appearances and publications she continues to assert herself as a nonspecific 'Native woman' or a 'woman of color' scholar to antiracist activist communities in ways that we believe have destructive intellectual and political consequences. Presenting herself as generically indigenous, and allowing others to represent her as Cherokee, Andrea Smith allows herself to stand in as the representative of collectivities to which she has demonstrated no accountability, and undermines the integrity and vibrancy of Cherokee cultural and political survival."
Faculty leaders at Clemson University have renewed a push to rename a campus building that honors Benjamin Tillman (right), a notoriously racist politician in South Carolina who was known for promoting and joining in violence against black people. Faculty members and students have been pushing for a change for some time, but the board has rejected the idea. Now, in the wake of the Charleston murders, nine past presidents of the Faculty Senate have issued an open letter calling for the board to reconsider.
"While renaming Tillman Hall will, in isolation, fail to secure a sustainable and more inclusive future for the university, it is far more than symbolic. It is an affirmation that honoring those whose station and legacy were achieved in significant measure via the vilest actions of intolerance has no place at Clemson University now or in the future -- even as the history, university-related role and scholarly study of those same individuals must have an indelible role in our educational mission. It is an affirmation that community matters; that ignorance can be replaced with enlightenment; that the administration and our board have a special responsibility as stewards of our institutional culture; and that we can hold, recognize, adapt to and share changing values."
David Wilkins, chair of the Clemson board, told The Greenville News last week that the board has no plans to rename the building.
Baylor University has dropped a reference to "homosexual acts" from a list in its sexual misconduct policy of barred activities, The Waco Tribune reported. The shift does not mean that gay people have acceptance at Baylor. Lori Fogelman, a spokeswoman, said that the university would continue to apply the policy in a way consistent with Baptist beliefs that define acceptable "sexual expression" as being between a married man and woman. Fogelman told the Tribune that "these changes were made because we didn’t believe the language reflected the university’s caring community."