Commentary Magazine

A “New Racism” on Campus?

Campus racism is receiving national attention, but questions of fact and of interpretation make its reality problematic and also ensure that discussion of the subject will invariably become heated. Some believe that others are looking for a chance to make an issue out of racism; according to the latter, the former are blinded by their own unadmitted bigotry. There are complaints that minority activists and/or university administrations are overreacting; but others take complaints about overreaction to be further evidence of racist attitudes.

Certainly many of the incidents that have been recorded are ambiguous. Since one does not know by whom, neither does one know with what motive racist graffiti are produced. At Smith College some years ago, a black student defaced her own door with racial slurs, in order, she later confessed, to draw attention to racism. At Amherst College it turned out that a KKK-style cross-burning was perpetrated not by racist whites but by black students, also for the purpose of drawing attention to racism at the college.

Without doubt there have been some instances of racial violence, most famously the post-World Series brawl at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1986. But not every fight between people of different races is a racial incident. And when racial animosity is involved, it is not always an animosity of whites toward blacks.

In March 1987, newspapers reported that at Columbia University in New York City a mob of white students had kicked and stomped a single black student and then went on a rampage shouting, “We’re going to kill you fucking niggers.” That story had been given to the press by a group of roughly a dozen students, calling themselves Concerned Black Students at Columbia (CBSC), who also distributed it in handbills in black neighborhoods in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens. But then the members of CBSC refused to testify at hearings held by the university, and their allegations were contradicted by 22 eyewitnesses. The truth, it now appears, is that the altercation began in personal animosity between one white and one black student, proceeded to a beating of that white student and three of his friends by seven blacks, not all of whom were students, and then to an unprovoked assault by blacks on another white student.

Most of the incidents cited as proving racism, however, do not involve violence, or even anonymous slurs, but mere “insensitivity.” Thus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, major concern about racism has been generated by incidents of which “the most blatant” was a fraternity’s throwing a “Fiji Island” party which it advertised by placing a dark-skinned and nose-boned caricature on its front lawn. Now as it happens the choice of the Fiji Island theme was dictated largely by the Greek letters of the fraternity, which has long been known as “The Fee-Gee’s.” Nevertheless, the authorities at Wisconsin interpreted this event as indicating that racism is pervasive there, and authorities at many other institutions have interpreted comparable events in similar fashion.



The problem of protesting “insensitivity” becomes more acute when the protest is not merely unconvincing but seems to be based on unjust demands.

Take, as an extreme instance, the Thernstrom case at Harvard. The Harvard Committee on Race Relations, created a year earlier, received a complaint in February 1988 that Stephan Thernstrom, Winthrop Professor of History, had exhibited “racial insensitivity” in a course he taught the preceding semester. These charges were made public in campus newspapers, including an article in the February 17 Harvard Crimson by one of the accusers, who happened also to be chairwoman of the Political Action Committee of the Black Students’ Association. It was from such articles that Thernstrom himself (one of Harvard’s leading liberal professors) first learned that charges had been brought against him. They appear to have been as follows: (1) Thernstrom used a book he had edited in which affirmative action was “incompletely defined as ‘government enforcement of preferential treatment in hiring, promotion, and college admissions.’” This definition, which in any event seems reasonably accurate, was not Thernstrom’s but a contributing author’s. (2) Thernstrom described the point of view of those who passed Jim Crow laws—their intention, for example, to suppress blacks whom they found to be “uppity.” (3) Thernstrom read aloud from white plantation owners’ journals “without also giving the slaves’ point of view.” And (4) Thernstrom presented the view, albeit not as his own, that black men leave their wives because they suffer feelings of inadequacy when black women enter the labor force.

Thernstrom was defended by many of his colleagues and, on grounds of academic freedom, by the dean of the faculty. But the dean of the college weighed in first, with a statement broadly condemning all “insensitivity,” including insensitivity to the unintended “import” of one’s words. Not surprisingly, Thernstrom commented that the kind of “ideological assault” to which he has been subjected discourages him and will discourage others from teaching courses on racial and ethnic issues.

Questions of racism have also upstaged other issues. When, for example, news leaked out at the University of Pennsylvania that a primarily Jewish fraternity’s rush party featured two black strippers performing sexual acts on stage, there was an angry outcry of “racism” (and “sexism”), but little or no mention of lewdness. A major concern was whether any of the audience’s comments were racial; duly inquiring, a faculty-student committee found no evidence of this. Even so, the director of Penn’s Afro-American Studies program described the incident as “the tip of the iceberg relative to . . . racism at the university,” and the fraternity received an eighteen-month suspension. Shortly thereafter, militant black students brought the anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan to campus, as an “acid test” of whether blacks will be accepted “on equal terms.”



A second series of events, distinct from the incidents of racism (whether actual or only imagined) in reaction to which some but not all of them began, was this spring’s swift sequence of rallies and marches and occupations of campus buildings, all by black students protesting racism. While expressing frustration with real or perceived prejudice, these demonstrations cannot be taken as further proof of racism. For it is largely the success of a protest on one campus that triggers another on another campus, as cooperative administrators grant protesters easy victories.

  • At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, at least 100 black students occupied New Africa House after five whites had been accused of beating two blacks. The five-day occupancy, however, followed the alleged beating by five days, during which time the university had already proceeded strongly by suspending two of the whites (two others withdrew voluntarily) and scheduling a disciplinary hearing. In spite of all this, the occupiers demanded “tougher prohibitions against racial harassment” as well as more minority students and faculty. Instead of refusing to dicker with those involved in the illegal seizure of property, Joseph D. Duffey, the chancellor, brought baskets of food to the students and agreed not only to the tougher prohibitions but also to accelerate renovation of New Africa House, to increase enrollment of minority students by 50 percent, and to “study” the creation of new classes on ethnic topics and the addition of ethnic foods to the cafeterias. He ended by thanking the occupiers “for reminding us of obligations we share as members of a community of learning.”
  • At Hampshire College, also in Amherst, 40 black students occupied an office for nine days, winning a sixteen-point agreement, including the appointment of a “dean of multicultural affairs” and an adviser for the group that occupied the office.
  • At Penn State, after 89 students had been arrested for a fifteen-hour sit-in, President Bryce Jordan dropped charges against them. He did so on the ground that the students had been “motivated by a genuine belief that immediate action was required” (an excuse that would apply equally well to most terrorists and many war criminals). He also agreed to create the position of vice president for cultural affairs for black students.
  • At Duke, when the Faculty Advisory Council rejected a proposal from the Committee on Black Faculty that each of Duke’s more that 50 departments be “required” to hire at least one additional black faculty member by 1993, all eight members of the committee resigned. This evoked a supporting protest by students and faculty, “drawing as many as 500 of Duke’s 5,284 students.” The result was that the council reversed its decision, even though the dearth of black Ph.D.’s in many disciplines makes it unlikely that the requirement can be met.
  • After a four-day occupation of the president’s office at the University of Vermont, that official signed an agreement containing seventeen provisions such as this one: “In no case will the number of minorities hired [for faculty positions] be less than four each year.” The agreement is doubly dubious, since the students with whom this contract was made represent no one but themselves and the president cannot be held to a promise that might require him to violate federal, state, and university statutes defining fair and non-discriminatory practices in hiring.
  • At Williams College, a group of 14 black students (apparently inspired by the Vermont victory) barricaded themselves in a dean’s office “to show the intensity of our feelings and the validity of our claims.” The result was an agreement by the Williams College administration to review its affirmative-action program, to “support a divisional requirement” in minority studies, to consider raising Afro-American Studies from a concentration to a major, to set up a multicultural center in consultation with various minority groups, and to establish four new scholarships for minority students.




The charge that there is a “resurgent racism” on the American campus is made not only by student activists but also by many educators and civil-rights leaders who claim that racism “has been condoned by the Reagan administration,” and that “in the last six or seven years, Reagan has made racism a more legitimate thing to do.”

The way in which President Reagan is supposed to have “done” this is not often specified, since knowledge of his faults is taken for granted in most academic circles. But we get at least some notion of what the charge means from remarks by Ira Michael Heyman, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, and by the aforementioned Chancellor Duffey. Heyman admits that there have been few racist incidents at Berkeley, “but I perceive them to fit into the larger framework of the general mood in the U.S. that includes the blunting of affirmative-action programs at the national level.” And Duffey explains the turmoil at Amherst on the grounds that the “white kids haven’t grown up in a world where affirmative action is defended.”

In other words, according to this view, opposition to race-based preferential treatment is both racist in itself and conducive to the spread of racism.

This expansive and tendentious redefinition would make racists out of the majority of the American people, who oppose preferential treatment as unfair and as a violation of the very principle of equality it is meant to serve. It is also what permits it to be said that racism is growing on the campus. For many of the allegedly racist incidents cited are actually protests against preferential treatment of minorities. Indeed, a slogan that has emerged on a number of campuses is, “Equal rights, not special rights.”

Some who recognize the difference between hostility to blacks and opposition to preferential treatment have coined the term “new racism,” defined as actions “aimed more at government or school programs that seem to help blacks at the expense of whites.” But calling it “new” still does not make it racism. All it does is to delegitimize the traditional American principle of equality of opportunity and to replace it with the rival principle of equality of result. The difference between these two views, of course, is the difference between liberal democracy, wherein procedural order or rule by law is maintained, leaving results up to individual effort, and a controlled society, wherein a particular outcome for the whole society is specified and nothing that might be done to individuals in order to achieve that outcome is prohibited.

If opposition to affirmative action is racism, then only when affirmative action is vigorously pursued “can we honestly say that racism is being handled in a practical manner”—as a University of Michigan vice president declared at a conference at Northern Illinois University this past February, where more than 350 representatives of universities and colleges discussed the problem of racial bias.

At a similar conference at Wellesley College a month earlier, the representatives of more than 30 New England colleges and universities were urged to find ways of “Enhancing support for affirmative-action programs, including holding administrators and department heads accountable for carrying out the policies.”

Holding department heads accountable is exactly what Duke has decided to do. Likewise Ohio State University, whose president, removing the last vestige of any ghost of a distinction between affirmative action and a quota system, “told the University Senate this fall [1987] that he is prepared to levy sanctions against units of the institution that fail to meet their goals in recruiting minority students and hiring women and minorities.”



Not only with respect to affirmative action but in all other respects as well, college and university administrators—at the Wellesley conference, at the Northern Illinois conference, and in pronouncements otherwise publicized—have anticipated the agenda of the protesters. Long before black students demonstrated in protest, these administrators proclaimed the need for more support for minority organizations, more minority studies, required courses in minority studies for all students, and so on.

Hence we have a strange spectacle to contemplate: at the University of Vermont, Williams College, Smith College, the University of Massachusetts, and other places, activists have occupied buildings or marched in protest in order to “coerce” administrators into doing what the latter had previously gone on record as proposing to do.

For example, Lattie F. Coor, president of the University of Vermont, has written that he had already presented a plan “calling for the doubling of the undergraduate minority student body and the minority faculty over the next four years, and calling for steps to make significant increases in the presence of courses dealing with ethnic studies and the minority experience,” when, after an extended series of meetings with minority students, they took possession of his office. Then, as President Coor delicately expresses it, “When it became clear that the minority students with whom I had been discussing these issues wished to pursue negotiations in the context of occupied offices . . ., I agreed to enter negotiation with them. . . .” He points out that the students’ occupation of his office violated university policy, but he decided not to enforce that policy because “. . . we’d had the issues under discussion for some time and even though I think we were in substantial agreement as to the general goals, the process was taking more time than many in the minority community believed appropriate.”

Much the same charade of intimidation was staged at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Smith College. Administrators from both institutions were reported in the national press to have recommended (at the Wellesley conference) these antidotes to racism: “Renewed commitment to affirmative action and curriculum revisions,” including “building into the curriculum multicultural courses.” That was on January 23. Twenty days later black students occupied a building at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and “won” those very same commitments as concessions. It took two months more for the Smith students to swing into action—but only after Mary Maples Dunn, Smith’s president, had been quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Academic institutions are being pushed by the young to put social justice and respect back on a high priority.” The students having thus been invited to do so, they marched on President Dunn’s house in “protest” against the slowness of Smith to combat racism.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that black students are being used by some administrators to bludgeon their faculties, trustees, and the public into unthinking support for policies upon which those administrators have already decided.

Allegedly racist incidents serve the same purpose. When Donna Shalala was made chancellor of the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, well before the Fiji Island party incident, she brought with her an ambitious plan by which the school could “address racism.” When the Fiji incident occurred, her administration played it up—notably, in their publications for alumni—as evidence of racial crisis and as reason to implement the provisions of Chancellor Shalala’s plan.



Yet the question arises: if the purpose of such plans and policies is to combat racism, why is it that racial tension is at its height precisely in those institutions in which they have been most extensively adopted?

The best known and probably the worst incident was the abovementioned brawl at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In the preface to his report on this incident—a report commissioned by Chancellor Duffey—a member of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination waxed enthusiastic over all that “UMASS” had already done to overcome racism:

. . . this is the same UMASS that has an Afro-American Studies Department with degree programs and tenured black faculty, including the chairman. It is the same UMASS that has a special academic counseling program for its black students. . . . It is the same UMASS that in the face of much criticism hosted the leader of Zimbabwe . . . that has a large Afro-American facility to house black programs, a funded Third World organization and an active black student recruitment program. It is the same UMASS that leads many in the country in a movement toward a genuinely pluralistic campus.

It is the same UMASS at which ten students, two black, eight white, were injured in a race riot.

Some educators are aware that their proposals will increase, not decrease, racial tensions, but they have a ready justification for pursuing them anyway. Thus Chancellor Heyman of Berkeley has said that “these unfortunate racial incidents are a mark of progress. It is what happens in the parade toward our objectives, which is a place that is not color conscious.”

Admittedly, while a disease is being cured, its symptoms will sometimes intensify. Therefore, if white hostility were a product simply of increased numbers of blacks on campus, we could hope that in time familiarity would breed tolerance.

Yet there is no evidence to indicate that white hostility is due to increased black presence as such. All the evidence indicates that it is due to preferential treatment of blacks and to the conditions of racial separation that exist on campus. According to one report, “On most campuses, from fraternities to the cafeterias to informal study groups, students live largely segregated lives. There is general agreement . . . that the practice, which mirrors society at large, is at the root of campus racial problems.” But despite what educators would have us believe, society at large is not the sole or perhaps even the primary culprit. Although the number of blacks attending predominantly white schools was smaller in the 50’s and early 60’s than it is now, integration was a fact of life at schools outside the South until, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, liberal educators acquiesced in the demands of black militants and separatists. It was this acquiescence in racial separation, both curricular and extracurricular, and not separateness in society at large, which produced the current racial polarization on campuses. More of it will only make things worse.




What we are observing here, then, is a nationwide movement in higher education which goes well beyond the original idea of affirmative action, that in order to reverse the legacy of racial discrimination it is necessary to make special efforts to bring blacks into higher education. It goes well beyond the idea—indeed, it negates the idea—that the higher education from which others have benefited should now be extended to all minorities. Instead, this movement, the goal of which is often described as “cultural diversity” or as “multicultural education,” argues that blacks and certain other minority groups represent cultures distinct from the culture of the majority, that these minority cultures must be added to the curriculum, and that justice will not be obtained until all students are made to appreciate the plurality of cultures.

From this it follows that along with the introduction of minority students we must have minority studies (otherwise called ethnic studies or multicultural studies), so that minority students will not be “denied their culture,” and so that other students will learn to understand people “culturally different” from themselves. It follows too that minority faculty are to be sought in order to teach minority studies and as exemplars of minority cultures, much as native speakers are the preferred teachers of foreign languages. And, finally, it follows that separate organizations and facilities for minority students are not only natural but should receive institutional support. Whereas it was once considered racist to bar blacks from a liberal eduation or to offer them separate facilities, it is now considered racist to “impose” that curriculum on them or to deny them separate facilities.

If the traditional liberal-arts curriculum “excludes” minority cultures, it must represent a peculiar culture possessed by the majority or some dominant minority. Hence, that curriculum is variously identified as Western or Eurocentric or even as the culture of white male capitalist heterosexual patriarchy. And hence too we have the demand, for example at Stanford University, to “balance” the curriculum by adding courses and materials relating to women, to minorities, and to other cultures and civilizations.



The institution of minority studies is the key proposal in the “cultural diversity” movement. For it rests on, it enshrines, and it teaches the dogma of cultural separateness on which all the rest depends. This dogma incorporates the double lie that American minorities have a culture essentially different from that of other Americans and that Western civilization and the liberal-arts tradition “exclude” women and minorities. It would reinforce this mistaken sense of exclusion by relegating the genuine contributions of minorities and women to curricular ghettos.

Moreover, the cry of cultural diversity is a sham. No one is urging courses in Irish Catholic studies, Greek American studies, and so on. The groups singled out do not even include Jews: the minorities selected—blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Asian Americans—are those who, with the possible exception of the last-mentioned, are or are supposed to be oppressed in contemporary American society. “Cultural diversity” thus fronts for a presumed distinction between the oppressors and the oppressed. It is meant to give an academic gloss to an implied power struggle and to organize the academy on a political basis without seeming to do so.

The dogma of cultural separateness purports to be a deep account of racial prejudice as rooted in Western culture itself. In this way it will in fact heighten mutual suspicion and hostility among Americans of different races and ethnic backgrounds. It rationalizes the existence of separate organizations for minority students, providing a training ground for leaders of minority political movements and turning the academy into a forcing-house of racial politics.

Black studies (“specializing,” as Thomas Sowell could already see in 1972, “in ideology and sociopolitical conditioning rather than education”) was the foot politics stuck in the schoolhouse door, soon followed by radical feminism and much else that, in the guise of educating, advocates. No wonder those who wish to push advocacy a step further belabor the problem of racism and mobilize minority militants to demand a yet more politicized curriculum: it worked so well the first time.

Indeed, the tenured veterans of the New Left of the 60’s, who now dominate the liberal-arts faculties of our colleges and universities, and their supporters in the administrative bureaucracies of those same institutions, do not want minorities to enter the American mainstream, and they are not about to help them do so. On the contrary, they are using minorities as a weapon in their struggle to change the mainstream. If there is a “new racism” on American campuses, that is it.



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