Brave the discussion

We must overcome the fear of conversations about race if we are to address the problems of institutional racism

A recent New York Times article on racial tensions at colleges highlights the decline in admission of black students at the University of Michigan in the past five years. Such a decline was likely due to a law passed by referendum in Michigan in 2006 prohibiting the use of race-based affirmative action for public college admissions.

This decline in enrollment of black students is not unique to Michigan. Other schools across the country have seen similar patterns. At the same time, incidents of racial tensions have made themselves public at multiple institutions. Not too long ago, the University experienced a racially motivated vandalism incident, when “UVA HATES BLACKS” was scrawled over the Student Health sign.

Whether or not the patterns of enrollment decline and the proliferation of these racially motivated incidents are causally linked may be impossible to determine, but we should take away from both trends the conclusion that race is clearly still a problem. That’s the easy part. The difficult part — how do we fix it?

Noliwe Rooks, Associate Professor of African Studies and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality studies at Cornell University and contributor for The Chronicle argues that addressing the problem is especially difficult because so many people are unwilling to talk about it. In her recently published piece, “Why Can’t We Walk About Race?” Rooks recounts the story of a professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College being punished after three white male students filed a complaint against her, saying she made them feel “uncomfortable” when giving a lecture on structural racism in today’s society.

One of the students during the lecture made an objection to white men always being portrayed as “the bad guys.” This incident correlates with a study done by Tufts and Harvard researchers, which found most white people currently think anti-white bias is more prevalent than anti-black bias. Such common attitudes are not conducive to productive discussions on racial problems — especially since it seems we can’t even identify the correct problems to begin with. People may believe that because there are no longer any laws explicitly barring black people from any opportunities, that we no longer have a race problem. But black Americans earn significantly less income than white Americans, and are grossly overrepresented in the prison population. These are problems that need social and legal reforms in order to be fixed, and the only way to fix them is to think about their origins, which is exactly what Professor Shannon Gibney’s class was trying to do.

The fact that the vice president of the college formally reproached the professor for generating a “hostile learning environment” indicates that the institution is buying into the ridiculous notion of anti-white bias. A group of seven professors are filing a class-action lawsuit against the college, charging discrimination.

A community, particularly at a university, where broaching the topic of race in an academic, intellectual manner results in a threat to a career yields no progress and in fact worsens the problem. Where can we begin to put theory into practice if not in academia? To stifle such discussion is a disappointing action, especially from an institution of higher learning.

The claim that addressing the issue of racism requires portraying white men as “bad guys” conveys a fundamental misunderstanding of the problems of racism. As Audre Lorde has said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Trying to force the group at the top of the hierarchy down to the bottom to make room for yourself does nothing to fix inequality — it perpetuates it. Therefore, deconstructing racism must involve coalition between blacks and whites — and people of all races — just as deconstructing sexism must involve coalition between men and women, not the solidarity of one homogenous group against another.

Lorde calls upon us to look inside ourselves, to “touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there” and “see whose face it wears.” We must not be afraid to admit that we are flawed, and that our world is flawed. Only when we stand face to face with the prejudices can we defeat them. Only then can we do better.

Published March 6, 2014 in Opinion

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