Furor Over Philosopher's Comments on Violence Against White People

Texas A&M president calls remarks “disturbing." Many colleagues say his quotes have been distorted and that his work in critical race theory and his academic freedom deserve support.

May 11, 2017
 
Tommy Curry

This article has been updated.

Tommy Curry, an associate professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University, has a long history of public statements about U.S. race relations. But he became the target of controversy, online threats and race-based harassment this week after The American Conservative ran a piece about him that drew heavily on a 2012 podcast interview about violence against whites in the Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained.

The article, called “When Is It OK to Kill Whites?” quotes Curry as saying in the podcast, “In order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people might have to die.”

Curry isn’t exactly misquoted, but his statement was part of a larger point about how, in his view, questions about violence against whites need to be addressed through a historical lens and how blacks need to reclaim conversations about the Second Amendment to highlight their own concerns about protection from race-based violence. As the controversy has grown, some in his department and elsewhere have said that his views have been distorted.

Within hours of The American Conservative’s post, YouTube's comments section and Twitter lit up with demands for Curry’s termination and racial slurs against him. Curry, who is black, said via email Wednesday that he’d received death threats and pictures of “apes, monkeys, etc.” As an example, he shared one tweet directed at him, showing someone putting a gun in a monkey’s mouth.

Michael K. Young, Texas A&M president, in a statement, called Curry’s four-year-old comments “disturbing” and standing “in stark contrast to Aggie core values -- most notably those of respect, excellence, leadership and integrity -- values that we hold true toward all of humanity.”

The First Amendment “protects the rights of others to offer their personal views, no matter how reprehensible those views may be,” though, he said.

“It also protects our right to freedom of speech, which I am exercising now. We stand for equality. We stand against the advocacy of violence, hate and killing. We firmly commit to the success, not the destruction, of each other. We wish no violence or harm even to those who espouse hateful views under the First Amendment, a sentiment that by its very nature is one that they would deny others. … Our core values are very much intact.”

Sinced that statement, some of Curry's colleagues have started speaking out to defend him.

“We would like to emphasize two points in particular,” a number of Curry’s department colleagues wrote in an op-ed in the newspaper The Eagle Saturday. “The first is that nowhere in the interview does Curry incite violence. What he does do is discuss remarks made by the actor Jamie Foxx about [Foxx’s] role in the film [and] relate those remarks to the role that violence and armed struggle has played in the progress of black civil rights. Second, in pursuing this discussion Curry is not simply exercising his First Amendment rights as a private citizen, but also is doing the job for which he has been awarded tenure at Texas A&M.”

Curry’s “assigned role at Texas A&M is to teach and research in critical race theory, an area where he is an acknowledged expert,” the statement reads, calling out the university for its “anemic” support for Curry in the matter thus far. “He has been encouraged to disseminate his ideas both within the academic world and more broadly.”

Students also have created a petition, which approached 1,000 signatures Sunday evening, criticizing Young for calling Curry’s comments “disturbing” in a mass email about the case and for not expressing explicit support for him -- though Young did affirm First Amendment rights for all on campus.

“Young’s language in this email not only allows for but encourages the campus community to assume that Curry, in the podcast in question, used his First Amendment rights to ‘espouse hateful views’ by advocating for ‘violence, hate and killing,’” reads the petition, quoting Young’s email. “We believe that this is not only a mischaracterization of Curry’s comments but serves to perpetuate a targeted campaign against his person and his work."

The professors in their op-ed also “urge the university to fulfill its obligations in the face of a vicious attack on the academic values that are fundamental to our faculty and to our students.”

Curry has since publicly clarified that he was making a philosophical point and not advocating violence against whites in the podcast. “I said in the initial conversation five years ago, the hypocrisy of self-defense proponents is that every group has a right to self-defense except historically oppressed groups like black Americans. My comments are about this historical contradiction. Black Americans’ right to defend themselves against white violence has historically been framed as hateful, whereas white Americans’ right [to] self-defense, which is often understood as their need to protect themselves from blacks, Mexicans and Muslims, is thought to be constitutional and an exercise of freedom,” he told KBTX-TV.

A number of outside scholars have defended Curry, too. Daily Nous, a philosophy blog, said that it Texas A&M seemed to be “buying” the decontextualized framing of Curry’s comments, or perhaps doing “public relations damage control.” It “would have been much better for Young to stick up for Curry,” it said, “rather than say things which he should know will in all likelihood make things worse for [Curry].”

 

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

 
+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top