Thursday, November 12, 2015

Going Out On a Limb on Race

Let me state the obvious up front: I'm a white man in a privileged position. I have tenure, rank, and an administrative position of some authority within a university. I have a social position within my community that is comfortable and oftentimes even respected.

So from some points of view, I may not be the best person to engage the current discussion about race, racism, and higher education. On the other hand, there are a lot of people like me running universities and colleges across the country. So if we don't engage, then solutions will be difficult to find. So I dip my foot in these waters tentatively, with humility and understanding that mine is a particular perspective.

A number of articles have been written of late that are well worth reading. There is Nicholas Kristof's excellent piece in today's NYT. There is a very good article in the Atlantic in defense of civility and against censorship. There is this blog post about racism written compellingly from a young black man's perspective.

In the midst of all of these conversations about clashing free speech and racism concerns, I appreciate these perspectives. In particular I appreciate the voice of the young blogger trying to explain what racism really is to those who never experience it. It is powerfully put and I believe sincere. He isn't attacking anyone in particular, but a broader problem in general. This is the kind of thing that can contribute to a conversation.

In order to actually push that conversation forward, however, it is not enough to hear from the victims of racism about the pain it causes. We need to know more - not about those who suffer from these indignities and injustices, but about those who perpetrate them.

Not all whites (or members of any group, for that matter) are racists. But some are. How do we address those who engage in these behaviors? How do we identify them, engage with them, and ultimately persuade them to change? That, it seems to me, is the real challenge. Beyond the protests and the screaming and the back-and-forth internet trolling, this is what real leadership (from wherever it emerges) needs to do.

Earlier today I likened the ongoing protests (some of which are occurring on my campus today, in solidarity with others) to a conflict. As a conflict scholar, the steps towards resolution are clear:

- Identify the essentials of the conflict. Who are the players? What are their interests, and what are they fighting about? What are the rules of the surrounding environment that shape how the conflict is conducted?

- Decide on the desired end goal. If the conflict were over, what would you want that to look like? What resolution do you seek, and what does that resolution look like for ALL of the actors involved?

- Evaluate and choose a strategy for achieving that goal. Can I get there through unilateral action, or do I need the cooperation of those with different views? Can I engineer a solution that meets my needs regardless of what the other side wants, or do I have to persuade others to join with me in a mutually-agreed settlement?

I don't think we've yet had much clear thinking about any of these things. Conflicts often arise between aggrieved students and university administrators or faculty, which is an example of the lamppost fallacy: tackling what you can see, rather than going where the problem really is. The fundamental conflict is between members of minority groups (blacks, latinos, transgender, etc.) and members of the majority group who want to discriminate against and oppress them. If that is the core of the conflict, there is no unilateral solution - neither group can wipe the other out, both must continue to live in the same society together. The question is, how?

I don't have any good answers. I don't know how you identify who the racists are, much less how you draw them into a political process designed to address their real interests and fashion a mutually acceptable solution. All I know is that until we do so, we are likely to be stuck in the ugly stalemate of today - sometimes quieter, sometimes louder, but with very little progress towards a better future.

1 comment:

  1. I got here via Dr Greene's blog, and I essentially agree with just about everything you said. It seems to me that as long as the complaints are nonspecific, perpetrators are not singled out from all white people, and the demands for change are either vague or unreasonable there isn't a viable solution to this problem. I honestly think people need to step back and take a few deep breaths. It seems like it is trendy for people to go out of their way to find things to be offended about. When it has gotten to the point that we need to treat college students like they are 6 by deciding what costumes they can wear then we are starting to enter Twilight Zone territory.