White Supremacy, Free Speech, and the Myth of Reverse Racism

For those who missed the news about Professor Lisa Durden, an adjunct professor at Essex County College in New Jersey, who was fired after appearing on Fox News Tucker Carlson Tonight, here is the link to the segment:  The Truth About Black Lives Matter.

It was painful to watch Professor Durden and Tucker Carlson’s exchange.  Both were dismissive of each other, rather than genuinely engaged.  Mr. Carlson was snide, and at times, Professor Durden met him at that level.  His questions demonstrated a lack of understanding of how oppression works, how oppression might be addressed, and how the oppressed feel (his questions alone were indicative of his personal disconnect from his own privilege).  And Professor Durden undermined her own credibility when she mocked white people and failed to clearly articulate why it is not discriminatory for oppressed groups of people to take opportunities to gather exclusively, outside of the presence of the dominant group.

Nonetheless, Professor Durden said nothing that justified Essex County College President Anthony Munroe’s decision to fire her.  President Munroe missed the opportunity to demonstrate the sort of courage needed in academic leaders, especially in this current climate.  His lack of courage to stand behind Professor Durden’s communication should disqualify him as one who should be head of a college, though I imagine in certain circles, he is deemed perfect for the job.

The First Amendment and academic freedom are cornerstones of higher education.  Professor Durden’s delivery may have been lacking, but her message was legitimate, and firing her sent the very worst of messages:  the academy does not genuinely value, nor will it protect, free speech and academic freedom.  Nor will the academy lead the way in terms of social justice.

Perhaps if Professor Durden were white, she would still have her job.  Perhaps if President Munroe were white, Durden would still have her job.  A racist society privileges white people to speak about the white supremacy, to support those who critique the white supremacy, for absent the appearance of personal agenda, their alliance feels benign, perhaps noble.  But when a black person challenges racism, their credibility is undermined because of the “self-interest” factor.  Counter-intuitive, yes, but that’s how dominance works.

As a result of Professor Durden’s interview, she has lost her teaching position at Essex County College—the President of Essex County College is concerned about the learning environment in the community he represents (See Statement from Essex County College President Munroe).  He could have pressed his community to support Professor Durden, to take advantage of this moment to instruct on civility and the freedom to speak.  He could have pointed to the lack of civility on the part of Tucker Carlson, who called Professor Durden demented, sick, and disgusting.  But the President instead backed those critical of Durden, and in so doing, he condoned Tucker Carlson’s abusive behavior.

I wonder what President Munroe really believes.  He’s got to understand that a program or practice that treats different groups of people differently is not necessarily a discriminatory practice.  Discrimination implies unjust treatment.  Injustice aims to disempower at the core.  He must understand the necessity for those marginalized to gather together in the margin, so they can strategize about how to enter the “main page” (or to just support each other and their weary spirits).  He must.

And he must understand that different treatment of different groups of folks only becomes problematic and concerning when said treatment has the intent or the impact of maintaining dominance over a group of individuals, especially a historically oppressed group.  He must understand this, and he had an opportunity to raise the level of understanding and awareness of the community he leads.  But he failed to do so.

I stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter [too] movement, and I understand the necessity for the movement to create space outside of and apart from white people.  As a white person, I can certainly understand that while I can be an ally of the movement, it isn’t my movement, and there will be times when allies are asked to step back.  If this were to offend me, I’d have to take a good, long, look at myself, and question my motive for alliance in the first place.

“Reverse Racism” is only real to those folks who fail to genuinely understand the workings of power and privilege.  In the United States, white supremacist ideas and racist practice have been the bedrock of our whole community—we were founded on white supremacist principles, and for nearly three hundred years systemic racism has sustained the dominance of white people and their “culture.”  When those oppressed by a system of dominance attempt to gather, call attention to the injustice, create programs and movements and policies to address and undo the impact of dominance, that is an attempt at restoring the community to truth. To call it any form of racism is to be consciously or unconsciously in collusion with the white supremacy.

Yes.  President Munroe, in explaining why Professor Durden was fired (the character of this institution mandates that we embrace diversity, inclusion, and unity…racism cannot be fought with more racism) colluded with the white supremacy.  Maybe in order to keep his new position as President, he had to.

There’s a lot of examples of injustice to tease out of this news story, but Professor Durden’s comments aren’t one of them.



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