Over the last thirty-six hours or so I have watched the unfolding story about Harry Reid’s “racist” comments with great interest, and greater sense of nostalgia for the campus where I spent so many years. Even though I am not there now, I can tell you with complete confidence what the on-the-ground reaction is: while most students are either too wrapped up in their studies or the compelling dramas that are their personal lives to register the debate about the senator’s vocabulary, a small but influential group are busily organizing anti-racism workshops and calling for the (college’s) administration to do something about its systemic biases. Actually, it’s a little early in the semester for this ritual to begin, but getting a jump on the protest season with an out-of-the-gate cri de coeur means there’ll be more time left before Commencement to agitate about animal rights, transgender rights and the food in the dining commons.
Of the panoply of evils in the hormone-fueled world of undergraduates, at least at the institution where I toiled, racism trumps them all. And this is why I scratch my head when apologists for Senator Reid’s words, such as the Boston Globe, critique them for a “stunning lack of sensitivity” as opposed to their racist implications. Because where I come from, that’s no distinction at all. Any lack of “sensitivity,” let alone a “stunning” one, is prima facie evidence of racism, pure and simple, the kind academics will use to create a teachable moment about “white privilege” and class oppression. Students will want to meet with the (college) president to urge he make a statement, and the president will in turn point out that two years ago he created the position of “special assistant to the president for diversity and multicultural education,” so the students should talk to the assistant instead. The assistant will then pull together an “emergency task force” of faculty, students and a token staff member or two. The task force will demand a budget for pizza and brownies, meet solemnly for weeks, then report that more study is needed and that the entire campus, trustee to cafeteria worker, must complete an on-line litmus test to establish each individual’s “intercultural effectiveness.”
Let us pause briefly to consider the following, all true on the aforementioned campus: the “special assistant” was relieved of his teaching and advising duties thereby reducing the faculty by one and reducing the faculty of color by a significant percentage; the funds for the pizza and brownies come from the same budget that has no provision for underwriting the additional cost to students of laboratory, music, or studio art classes or for their independent research; ditto for the money spent on the “intercultural effectiveness” survey. But I digress.
The college will purchase the “intercultural effectiveness” survey instrument and the concomitant training for the special assistant and another administrator so that they are qualified to “interpret” the results. And that’ll be the end of it. The staff will take the “intercultural effectiveness” quiz (on college time, an additional hit to the strapped budget in terms of workers’ productivity), and a few faculty will as will the more earnest trustees. The president will direct his senior administrators to complete it—or else—and then report proudly to the board of trustees on the spectacular progress he has made rooting out racism on campus. Then, one semester will go by with no “feedback” or follow-up. The “further study” recommended by the emergency task force will not take place; the good sports who took the survey will wait in vain to learn the results and find out just how racist they really are. Then another semester will go by. And another, until the time and money spent on the exercise are forgotten. Soon it will be an election year, and a prominent politician will say something stupid and the cycle starts again. A new “emergency task force”—perhaps this time called the “anti-racism coalition and their white allies working group”—will chow down on pizzas and brownies. Whatever information could have been gleaned from the “intercultural effectiveness” survey (if indeed it is still on hand) will be deemed too dated to be worth resurrecting, and so a new survey instrument must be purchased and administered.
The Globe editorial admonishes Senator Reid: “the senator ought to focus on modernizing his own half-century-old dialect.” Sounds like the clarion call for sensitivity training to me. Easier and less expensive, I think, to skip the pizza-and-brownie budget and the exorbitant fees for the “intercultural effectiveness” survey and let the good voters of Nevada root out the old racist come November.