A loud silence on racism

January 12, 1994|By Roger Wilkins

KHALID Abdul Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, speaking at Kean College in Union, N.J., on Nov. 29, talked of "Columbia Jew-niversity" and "Jew York City" and suggested that German Jews brought the Holocaust upon themselves. He also took aim at whites generally, the pope, homosexuals and the blind and disabled.

No blacks on the faculty and staff condemned the contents of the speech, according to news reports.

One faculty member sidestepped issues raised by the talk and lashed out at racism on the campus, to which he believed Jewish faculty members had contributed.

In avoiding swift and forceful condemnation of Mr. Muhammad's bilious diatribe, the black faculty members failed their students, failed their obligations as members of a civilized community and failed to uphold the best traditions of the black struggle.

While I have never been to Kean College, I have no reason to doubt allegations that black adults on the campus have encountered racial problems. Despite splendid efforts on many campuses to change behavior, populations and curriculums, racism remains alive and extremely hurtful in academia.

But this is exactly why black staff and faculty members must display exemplary moral behavior. It is not just the black adults on campus who are harmed by racism; it is, primarily and most distressingly, the students -- students of all colors and backgrounds.

The black adults have important lessons to teach all students, in the classrooms and outside.

Most white, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian students get their first sustained exposure to a black adult when they come into our classrooms. No matter what subject we teach, our personas can be powerful countervailing lessons to the racist notions that nonblack students bring from their neighborhoods and homes.

Black students have come already hurt by a disdainful culture into an academic atmosphere of profound ambivalence. Despite the strongest efforts of the best-intentioned institutions, the atmosphere at predominantly white colleges and universities shrieks, "This is a white space that you occupy only at our sufferance!"

Not too long ago, a black student in Oklahoma told me, "White people give me looks that say, 'What are you doing here?'" I asked him when that happened. "Every time I walk into a room," he replied.

One of our most important jobs as black staff and faculty is to help these young people, whose sense of themselves is precarious, learn that though it will be psychically and often economically difficult, they can become strong, effective and fulfilled citizens as so many of the most honorable African-Americans have been over the centuries.

Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. DuBois, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall were among those who created our best traditions.

Their lives teach us that we blacks are much more than simply the sum of our injuries and grievances.

One of the first tasks black faculty members have in passing on those lessons is to separate, to the greatest degree possible, our teaching from the anger and pain our own institutional struggles have inflicted on us.

We have to be able to manage our anger and pain and to use them constructively in order to teach our students how to do it after we are gone.

Our heroes did that. Though some of them worked during slavery and others during deepest segregation, they were not whiners or scapegoaters. Some of the most courageous and effective allies many had were Jews.

They had other white allies as well -- some of them Catholic, blind, lesbian or gay. Our great leaders were not immune to pain or anger, but they were not racists.

It is not weakness to control your justifiable rage, to resist scapegoating, to deal with people as individuals and to use humane values to advance our cause. On the contrary, it is weak to be vile and stupid and anti-Semitic and homophobic and racist.

Sometimes it takes strength for teachers to say such things to students when a truly wicked and destructive message has just pandered to their deepest injuries and insecurities.

Roger Wilkins is professor of history at George Mason University.

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