Johnny Eric Williams, professor of sociology at Trinity College in Connecticut, is once again facing criticism for his social media posts about race. But this time the institution is immediately backing his right to that speech, citing academic freedom.
Trinity “supports academic freedom and free expression and inquiry, which are hallmarks of academia and democratic society,” President Joanne Berger-Sweeney said in a statement. “When speech proves controversial, our responsibility as educators is to promote more debate and discussion, not less.”
Williams faced death threats -- and Trinity briefly shut down -- in 2017 after he wrote on social media about that year’s shooting at members of Congress practicing for a baseball game. The point of the discussion was that a lawmaker who opposed LGBTQ rights and reportedly one spoke at a meeting of white supremacists was saved by a black lesbian first responder. Using a phrase he did not create to share his own post, Williams wrote, "#letthemfuckingdie." He and his supporters say that the hashtag was rhetorical, not a literal call for anyone's death.
After a college investigation into his comments, Williams was eventually cleared of wrongdoing. Berger-Sweeney said at the time that “the principles that underlie this particular set of events go far beyond the actions of any one person. These involve principles that concern how we think about academic freedom and freedom of speech, as well as the responsibilities that come with those fundamental values.”
Williams said at the time that he was “heartbroken” over the college’s response to him, but both he and Trinity cited a need for “space” from each other.
‘Whiteness Is Terrorism’
In recent days Williams has again caught flak for new Facebook posts about race. In one, he wrote, “White kneegrows really need a lot of therapy and a good ol' ass kicking.” He later clarified that he was talking about black Republican commentator Candace Owens, but also “other and less brazen but more insidious dangerous ‘white’ kneegrows like Barry and Michelle Obama.”
On Easter, Williams tweeted that “Whiteness is terrorism.”
“All self-identified white people (no exceptions) are invested in and collude with systemic white racism/white supremacy,” he also said.
Alumni soon brought the posts to public attention, with some calling for Williams’s ouster. He was lambasted by Tucker Carlson, a far-right conservative commentator and Trinity alum, for example.
Berger-Sweeney said in her public statement that “Twitter is a challenging place for a thoughtful discourse, which is clear from this example.” But her invocation of Williams’s academic freedom hasn’t wavered.
Berger-Sweeney used a similar tone in an all-campus memo that did not reference Williams by name.
“As an educational institution -- with a foundation built on academic freedom and freedom of expression and inquiry -- we embrace this important work and the opportunity it provides to nurture a learning environment that values differences and seeks debate and discussion,” she wrote. “Where else should these debates occur, if not here?”
Williams said in an interview Tuesday that he’s received some racist emails and messages but nothing so unnerving as the threats from two years ago. Asked if Berger-Sweeney’s support made a difference, Williams said he wouldn’t call her reaction “support.”
Yet her message this time around is more “politically astute and educated about what academic freedom is,” he said. A college shouldn't say it values scholars' public engagement without planning to defend those professors for their public comments.
Williams also said that his tweet about whiteness has been “misconstrued” by many to mean white people. And courses or academics' comments on whiteness at other institutions have been similarly interpreted -- and criticized.
Whiteness is an idea or ideology affiliated with racial capitalism, not a skin color, however, Williams said.
“I am focused on systemic white racism. That's why you have critical professors who interrogate this stuff in our scholarship and our classrooms,” he added. “This is not about hating white people.”
Williams said that nonwhite people may also subscribe or aspire to whiteness, seeking to accrue benefits associated with it. Owens, who is black, is probably making a lot of money speaking for the causes she does, for example, he said.
Williams also argued that President Obama never enacted a policy that bettered the lives of black people, and that the U.S. political system isn’t designed to benefit them -- hence his "kneegrows" comment.
A Battle Over the Churchill Club
More than anything, Williams linked the current backlash to his social media posts to an ongoing Trinity battle over a proposed student club affiliated with the off-campus Churchill Institute.
The institute was formed by Gregory Smith, professor of political science at Trinity, in 2016. Its website says it is dedicated to the “preservation, dissemination and extension of the Western moral and philosophical tradition … in a world where Western civilization is under attack politically and militarily, but even more ominously, intellectually.”
Smith, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has previously been criticized for his public statements about identity politics: he sees them as divisive, not inclusive, and negating of the individual.
Smith also has criticized Williams, if not by name, for his 2017 comments on race. In an essay on racism posted to the institute’s website he wrote that year, Smith accused Williams of racism in his own right and said it’s “morally obtuse” that the college “and the majority of its faculty, far from expressing their clear outrage at obviously hateful and racist sentiments, have actually apologized to the offending professor, turned him into a hero, and then recently given him a platform to speak on campus.”
This “alt-left racism and fascism can be dressed up with all the sociological neologisms, barbarisms and obscurantism possible,” he wrote, “but lipstick will never beautify this pig.”
Seeking to do more on campus -- specifically to rent out rooms to hold colloquia -- the small group of Trinity students affiliated with the institute recently applied for club status. A bigger group of Trinity students opposed that move, saying that the institute’s website defined Western civilization in narrow, alarmist and arguably white supremacist terms. That's the same kind of criticism that's been levied against Western civ-style courses (whether they're designed that way or perceived to be) on many campuses, including Reed College.
Williams and about four dozen faculty members circulated an open letter to Trinity deans about the ongoing club debate, echoing students’ concerns.
The institute’s website “explicitly promotes the superiority of ‘Western’ ideas and civilization, a position that often accompanies the demeaning and devaluing of other ways of knowing,” reads that letter. “Students have expressed concern that the institute, named after a known racist, imperialist and white supremacist, and the bellicose claim that Western civilization is ‘under attack,’ reinforces the daily marginalization of many students on campus.”
The group also “advertises itself as a response to perceived intolerance of ‘intellectual diversity’ at Trinity,” the letter continues. “However, what it really fosters is the silencing of diverse intellectual and cultural traditions that challenge the assumption that the European tradition is (and should be) the aspiration of all human societies.”
Trinity’s Student Government Association on Sunday voted against granting the institute club status. But early this week, Berger-Sweeney said that the college’s Office of Student Activities, Involvement and Leadership reviewed and approved the Churchill Club’s application materials earlier in the semester.
"As such, the club is an officially recognized student group at Trinity,” Berger-Sweeney said. It is also the “administration’s understanding that the group had met the requirements of the college and of SGA and should therefore have received SGA recognition.”
As an educational institution, Berger-Sweeney said, “we have an unshakable commitment to free expression and inquiry, open debate and discourse, and the valuing of all voices.”
Some will certainly view Berger-Sweeney’s take on the club as "both sidesism." Williams said that Trinity remains highly conservative, and that any concern that conservative students’ views are stifled is manufactured.
But others see Berger-Sweeney’s actions toward the club as good for the college, and for the free flow of ideas.
A representative of the institute who did not want to be identified by name, citing concerns about being targeted for the affiliation, said in a statement that both the institute "and the club’s student members are grateful that the administration upheld the basic promises of free speech and association on Trinity’s campus and appreciate that difficult situation" Berger-Sweeney faces.
The club currently has eight to 10 members, "though many others on campus have offered their support," the representative said. "The club’s roster is representative of the diversity of Trinity’s campus, comprised of men and women from a variety of backgrounds and bringing nuanced viewpoints to our discussions. The Churchill Institute is grateful for the passion and energy each of the students has contributed to launching the club, particularly in the wake of the harassment they have faced on campus recently. As has always been the case, the institute is eager to be part of a productive dialogue on campus. We remain hopeful to be seen as a convener of ideas, to connect people of differing opinions, and work united on ways to make the college better for everyone."