Gorilla Taunts of a Professor as Jim Crow Flaps at UCLA

A few years ago, medical residents at UCLA performed mocking roasts of their professors during an annual event. It is probably a common yearly send-off at UCLA, as it is at most medical schools and academic hospitals to lighten the mood in the pressure-packed environment.

It is one thing to mock in a playful fashion, leaving the subject of the mocking laughing hysterically with everyone else. It is yet another thing to insensitively mock in a way that infuriates the subject, while everyone is laughing at him or her.

It would be insensitive and cruel to mock someone whose close friend died on 9/11 with images from 9/11. It would be insensitive and anti-Semitic to mock a Jew who escaped Nazism with images concerning the Nazis. It would be insensitive and sexist to mock a victim of rape with images about rape. It would be insensitive and racist to mock an African-American with images relating him or her to a gorilla.

African-Americans were told for one hundred years in the late eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century by the Western world’s leading scholars that we were a different, lower, species than White people, closer to the species of apes than that of (White) humans. In 1799, British physician Charles White asserted that, “in whatever respect the African differs from the European, the particularity brings him nearer to the ape.”

Then, Charles Darwin flipped the script. For several generations, well into the twentieth century, America’s leading scholars pioneered disciplines positioning people of African descent “nearer to the ape” in the scale of evolution. As Darwin wrote in Descent of Man in 1871, “the great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies” will in the future be “between man in a more civilized state” with “the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

Relating Black people to gorillas was and still is the ultimate attack on Black people, on Black humanity. Calling us the “n-word” pales in comparison.

                  

But that is just what the racist medical residents insensitively mocked at that UCLA reception a few years ago. The subject of scorn was Dr. Christian Head, the first and only Black tenured professor at UCLA’s department of head and neck surgery. UCLA residents put together and showed a series of about 20 slides during their mocking roast, all directed at Head, describing him as a poor doctor.

“In the final slide was a photo … of a gorilla, on all fours, with my head photoshopped onto the gorilla with a smile on my face,” Head says in a six-minute YouTube video. “And a Caucasian man, completely naked, sodomizing me from behind, and my boss’ head photoshopped on the person smiling.”

Head says he could feel the pressure in his chest as his colleagues and the residents laughed at the slide. I cannot even imagine how he felt as he listened to the insensitivity, the racism, the ridicule spill out from their laughter.

According to Head, when the laughter finally subsided, he approached the podium and pulled his boss aside and asked, “How could you let this happen? How could you do this?”       

His boss merely smiled and chuckled, according to Head, and asked what the problem was.

Head decided to complain to his superiors at UCLA. They threatened to deny him tenure if he made a big deal about the matter, Head says. Like many professors do, for good or for bad, Head decided to swallow his pride to pursue tenure. But after he received tenure, the racism persisted, so his complaints resurfaced, and then the retaliations began—cutting his pay, denying him from teaching.

Last month, having lost all faith in UCLA to resolve the matter, Head filed suit against the California Board of Regents for failing to prevent the discrimination and retaliation, as well as two of his colleagues for making “inappropriate racial comments and insinuations about Blacks.”

 

We already know that in recent years UCLA has been doing a dismal job recruiting the many talented African-American students in California and around the nation.

And now this.

Individual racism is showing itself at UCLA by what the residents and Head’s colleagues have done. Institutional racism is showing itself by UCLA seemingly turning a blind eye to these actions and maintaining an almost lily-white environment where racism could thrive.

UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton recently issued a statement that the university “has investigated this matter and found that the evidence does not substantiate the claims of unlawful activity.”

I can see the defensive writing on the wall. The university has done nothing unlawful. At the most there may be a few bad discriminating apples, some immature residents, some taunts that did not mean anything. And Head is the one at fault for overreacting, for not taking a joke, for damaging the reputation of the university that has a long history of diversity. Head’s pay and teaching responsibilities have been cut, not because he refused to be the mascot for derision, not because he refused to be the plaything of racists in the medical school, but because of his poor performance.

It is an old defensive tale that has been told and written over and over again at so many colleges and universities when a professor chose to expose racism. And people listen to it, they believe it, and the incident of racism eventually washes over.

But this is a new day. The old tales will not convince us anymore of post-racism. They will not make us ignore the flapping of Jim Crow at UCLA and the countless other colleges and universities around the nation.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).