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Race and its Continuing Significance on our Campuses

Race and its Continuing Significance on our Campuses
an interview with
Dr. Joe R. Feagin

In the fall of 2002, every college president who was a member of the American Council on Education received a copy of The Continuing Significance of Racism: U.S. Colleges and Universities. This was the first in a series of occasional papers that ACE will be issuing in the coming months. They chose a noted scholar and graduate research professor in sociology at the University of Florida, Dr. Joe R. Feagin, to write the paper.

The Texas native and Harvard Ph.D. has written more than 40 books and 150 scholarly articles that have focused on racism and sexism. He served as president of the American Sociological Association from 1998 to 2001. His book with Harlan Hahn, Ghetto Revolts (Macmillan, 1973), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. And recently his book Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations (Routledge, 2000) won a special award for scholarly contributions from the Racial and Ethnic minorities section of the American Sociological Association.

Recently, Black Issues In Higher Education spoke with Feagin about the state of race relations, particularly in higher education.

BI: Why do people feel uncomfortable talking about race in this country?

JF: Until the 1960s, many White Americans — and certainly until the 1950s, most White Americans — did not find it painful to be called “prejudiced” or “racist.” Most Whites held so many racial stereotypes and prejudices in their heads up until the ’50s and ’60s that they were comfortable in expressing overt racism, overt racist attitudes and perspectives. With the 1960s came the constant reminder of the egalitarian values and ideals of this society, that came from the Black civil rights movement, and later the Latino civil rights movement, and even later the women’s movement. But the movements of the ’60s reminded Whites, and especially White men, of the egalitarian values on which this country was founded. Those values have tended to be more rhetoric than reality. I think one of the reasons Whites today get so upset over “racism” and “racist” is that we want to deny that we have these severe problems that we once cherished and relished.

BI: In your American Council on Education essay you talked about terms such as “reverse discrimination.” Many of those terms originated in the academy. What does that say about some of the attitudes in the academy?

JF: Well, if you go back to the 1960s, especially after Lyndon Johnson and the Congress started doing some things to end discrimination, conservative scholars and activists, pundits and politicians worked together through a growing number of conservative think tanks and foundations to develop a counterattack to the many new social programs. One of those counterattacks was directed at affirmative action and civil rights, so they came up with this oxymoronic, really quite moronic, idea of reverse discrimination. You have to give them credit for cleverness because they took a concept of discrimination, which had been the center of a progressive civil rights movement, and appropriated the idea in the sense of the White men who were now paying a small price for the several hundred years of discrimination.

BI: Would the same analysis apply to terms such as “political correctness,” that if you spoke out you were accused of being against the system of “political correctness,” which was some kind of aberration of the fundamental right of speech?

JF: Yes, the trouble with free speech in this country, of course, is that the people with more money get more speech. So these right-wing foundations have been extremely well funded in developing this counterattack and developing concepts, ideas and language. As part of this counterattack to end the progress that has come under affirmative action, to roll back some of these gains, they’ve come up with language like “reverse discrimination,” which of course does not exist. And since most of the mass media are controlled by conservative White men, they have a great deal of power. They have a great deal of power to force these new terms and ways of thinking on the general public.

BI: Would you say, then, that (Sen.) Trent Lott just said what a lot of people were thinking?

JF: I think Trent Lott’s point of view is widely shared in large segments of the White population. It’s a minority view in White America, this kind of blatant kind of old Confederate viewpoint that he’s expressing. It probably represents only a minority opinion in White America, but it’s very strong down here in the South. There are large groups of Whites, particularly White men, who agree absolutely with him, and the best evidence of that is he keeps getting re-elected. That’s because Whites vote overwhelmingly for him, and they vote overwhelmingly for him because of his point of view.

BI: So he is not an aberration?

JF: No, he represents a significant percentage of White opinion in this country. The good news is that it’s a minority opinion. The bad news is that it’s a fairly large minority, particularly in the old Confederacy.

BI: Your report has some very interesting statistics and analysis of the demographic imperative. In terms of the national leadership, on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being extremely important and one being not significant at all, how would you score the national leadership on issues of race?

JF: Clearly, judging from members of Congress or the president and his Cabinet, or even from public opinion polls, issues of racial discrimination are very low, probably down around 2 or 3. I’ve interviewed a lot of Whites in several research studies besides some of the discussion in that ACE report, and the majority of the White population admits that we had a problem with discrimination and racism in the past, that we have largely dealt with that, that racial discrimination is either dead or dying in this country, and that as a result we don’t need remedial programs like affirmative action any more, except maybe in a few rare, special circumstances.

Now the conservative segment, that Lott represents, takes an even harsher view. But I think the moderate middle’s opinion is that we had a problem with racism, there’s still some Ku Klux Klanners out there, and they’re bad, but by and large discrimination is declining or nearly dead in this country and Black people need to get over it, quit being paranoid, and we need to move on. That’s probably the typical middle-of-the-road White view.

BI: And what does a comment like Lott’s do to that middle-of-the-road viewpoint?

JF: Well, clearly it makes them extremely uncomfortable because it reminds them that their view is incorrect, that there is still widespread racism in this country. People that celebrate Jefferson Davis, for example, as an American hero — and that’s an incredible point of view when you think about it — this is a man who led an armed rebellion against the United States, celebrating him and his way of thinking. They can’t ignore it. But what they will do is they will marginalize it. They will say, “Well, you know, this is just that fringe element out there.”

BI: College presidents typically find that getting too far out front on racial issues tends to be risky business.

JF: The reason is that too many presidents pay most attention to powerful alumni, boards of trustees and state legislatures. That is, they are not leaders. They are followers. And it’s the rare, courageous individual who will stand up consistently against those three groups. Now, many presidents will stand up occasionally against one of those groups, but it’s very hard when those groups, who tend, all of them, to be White men, take a conservative position on these affirmative action, desegregation, diversity kinds of issues for universities. It’s very hard for a president to stand up against that, because every president’s job is to raise money and keep his or her college or university going. So they have to pay attention to money, and if money comes from the legislature, the alumni and the board of trustees — “who pays the piper calls the tune,” is the old saying. So it’s a fairly brave and courageous president who can stand up against that pressure.

BI: It seems that many Americans, by and large, have not directly felt the impact of the demographic imperative?

JF: Well, I think the White mind is mainly ducking this issue right now. And to the extent that Whites think about it, they’re confused. Again, because the mass media have presented more stereotyped thinking about this than anything else. And, unfortunately, the main public arguments being made and the main research being done on this is being done by right-wing pundits. It’s the right wing that seems to be paying most attention to these changes, and the moderate middle and the liberal Whites just don’t seem to have focused on this issue yet and it has, of course, tremendous implications for education. How can colleges and universities that actively recruit student bodies of 18-year-old freshmen duck the fact that 50 years from now 65 percent of those 18-year-olds will not be White?

BI: The events that led to Dr. Cornel West’s departure from Harvard sent shock waves throughout the Black higher education community. Do you see that as a harbinger of increased marginalization of Black faculty and staff?

JF: I think there is an increasing marginalization of Black faculty, but I would say that’s always been the case. I’ve been rereading reading materials on Dr. (W.E.B.) DuBois lately. He is clearly the greatest American of the 20th century in many ways. He lived to be 93, and even at the age of 90 was touring the world giving lectures … an incredible intellectual force, founder of the NAACP, brilliant historian … He never was offered a major regular position at one of our leading universities. And he had to be one of the two or three top intellectuals of his era. Leading Black intellectuals have always been on the margins of our great universities. In order to become part of those universities, to whatever degree they are allowed to become part, most of them, if not all of them, have had to assimilate in a one-way direction to those White-normed college and university environments. That is, they have to give up something. The more outspoken they are about racism in this society, or for that matter any of the problems in this society, the more critical, the more progressive they are, the more they become targets for removal from their positions in this White-normed environment. We have a national scandal right now that almost no one is writing about except some of the Black media. That is that young Black faculty have not gotten tenure at many of our universities. There are just large numbers of Black faculty who haven’t gotten tenure, or who have gotten it only after a very bloody, painful battle.

If you look at institutions like mine, the University of Florida, what are we now? Departments on my campus generally have no more than one Black faculty member per department and numerous departments have none. Rarely do you see an inline administrator who is African American. Some of the assistant administrators will be African American, some of the staff jobs will be African American, but African Americans are not seriously considered for heads of major colleges or for heads of the university or top, really super-top, administrators. In virtually all institutions in the country, there are just a handful of Blacks who have made it to those highest positions. DuBois faced the same thing. White universities, White intellectuals just don’t pay much attention to Black faculty, no matter how distinguished and brilliant they may be. So Black faculty and administrators are often in marginal positions on today’s campuses. They’re often just hanging in there against everyday racism, doing the best they can. They don’t quit because they know they have to be there to protect Black students and to help the Black students as best they can. But I suspect many of them have thought seriously about just quitting and going into another line of work.

BI: Are you optimistic about the ability of the country to figure out a way to deal with the continuing significance of the issue of race?

JF: Well, I sometimes say I’m a pessimistic optimist. Basically, I’m an optimist because I’ve got this kind of faith in people, and I think ultimately if the mass media and the elite and the leadership would change, the people would change. But I’m pessimistic because the signs right now are bad. We made great progress in the 1960s, and mainly thanks to Blacks, Latinos and women who went into the streets and were willing to put their lives on the line with Blacks leading the charge. The White elite was pushed in the direction, and many White liberals did the right thing. And then we’ve kind of moved backward over the last 30 years. We need, clearly, another civil rights movement to push this country forward again. It can be done. In that sense, I’m an optimist.

BI: Some people point to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other high-profile appointments as being significant signs of progress. What is your take on this?

JF: Well, the current White strategy for holding down protests, I think, is tokenism. Now some of the tokenism becomes a bit more than tokenism. It can become a modest change. Somewhere between modest and token tends to be the White response when we’re not under pressure from civil rights movements to take bigger steps. Most people can’t name more than three Black Republicans and that says something about how much this is a matter of tokenism. And so one of the ways you try to head off more substantial change is you appoint one Black person to be the visible token that you can point to when somebody accuses you of having a racist system or running a racist university or a racist organization. One would be impressed if 10 percent or 15 percent of all the key top positions in the government were made up of African Americans. Then you would maybe talk about some substantial integration of the decision-making centers of the society. But having one or two tokens up there does not bring meaningful integration of the system.

BI: You live in Florida, which is a very diverse state. How do you read the ability of Blacks and Latinos to build meaningful and progressive coalitions?

JF: The issue of coalitions among people of color in the United States is probably the chief political issue facing progressives and people of color over the next 20 to 50 years in this country. And yet it is one where there has been no major national conference that I know of calling Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans together to talk about how we build better coalitions. When I give talks on this demographic issue that you raised earlier, I suggest that one way to improve the country is to have some multiracial coalitions against racism and discrimination since it is in the interests of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans to work together against White racism. People always ask me tough questions about that. Well, Blacks and Latinos fight each other in the cities we know about. They don’t build coalitions. And Asians fight, they don’t want to build coalitions. So why are you optimistic about coalitions? And I’d say well, I’m not especially optimistic about coalitions, but I suspect that some of them are coming because of shared interests among these groups. The big issue is: Can Blacks and Latinos, since they’re the largest groups, can they build effective political coalitions to improve the terrible conditions that many in both communities face, both in terms of economic conditions and in terms of racial discrimination?

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