By David Cruz-Uribe, SFO
Professor of Mathematics
In a recent posting on the Faculty Listserve and on 4Legs, my colleague, Professor Sam Kassow, takes exception to the recent open letter signed by more than 160 faculty members. (This letter was also posted to 4Legs.) He accuses his colleagues of over-reacting to the recent racist incident on Vernon Street. While deploring it, his main contention seems to be that these are isolated events caused by a few bad apples, and Trinity would be well advised to carefully study the purported problem instead of engaging in “jeremiads about racism.” I respectfully but strongly disagree with his conclusions.
The argument that our problems are only caused by a “few bad apples” might have merit if the incident on Vernon Street was an isolated occurrence, but it was not. Two other racist incidents have already become public this semester, and my own memory yields a depressing litany of such events going back to my first year on the faculty in 1996. In the past few years I have seen the “Pimps and Hos” party held by Cleo; the white student who urinated out a window onto a black student while shouting “nigger”; the student who attended a frat party in black face; the gay Latino student who had human excrement smeared on his door.
Beyond these incidents, minority and gay and lesbian students have asserted repeatedly that many more incidents than these have happened and either were unreported or were swept under the rug. Their anger and dismay generated by their belief that Trinity either ignores or downplays their experiences is palpable. I see no reason to not find their reports credible, and I believe that Professor Kassow’s assertion that we need further studies to determine what “factors contribute to tension and alienation” only contributes to the problem.
Furthermore, Trinity does not need another study about racism, homophobia or misogyny. We have studied these problems repeatedly in the past, most recently in 2007, when the Charter Committee on Campus Climate released its findings. This committee, composed of trustees, administrators, faculty and students, began its report with the sobering conclusion:
Trinity College is not immune to the bigotry and closed-mindedness that have too often marked life in this country. Despite our rules, our hopes, and our high-minded pronouncements, our community has been marred repeatedly by malicious acts of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of hatred.
The work of the committee is based not just on anecdotes or sweeping generalizations about the student body, but on hard data gathered by previous committees and the Office of Institutional Research. Its conclusions were fully endorsed by the Board of Trustees, which acknowledged the problem and called for a “cultural transformation on campus.” (Quoted from an email from Paul Raether to the College, 12/10/2007.)
We cannot achieve such a transformation simply by reacting to specific incidents and harshly punishing the malefactors. Trinity must also examine its own broader complicity in these issues. To raise this question is not an exercise in “self-flagellation” as Professor Kassow puts its, nor an uncritical condemnation of the student body. I do not believe that either the Trinity student body or the administration are actively racist in the simplest sense of the word: that they hate or denigrate minority students. But this is only one facet of racism in America, and here lies the heart of the matter that must be addressed. Racism is also embedded in institutions and societies.
In Catholic theology these are referred to as “structures of sin”: structures that are the result of previous racist acts and ideas that have shaped the pattern of society and often channel people to act wrongly. A good example of these are the “Pimps and Hos” parties that are popular on college campuses. I interrogated my students in my first year seminar and discovered these were even popular in high school, and that the vast majority of the white students did not realize the racist and misogynist stereotypes they were invoking. This racism is imbedded in the culture, and is received by them uncritically. Thus we have the (seemingly paradoxical) fact of a blatantly racist party in which you cannot accuse the majority of participants of being racist in the sense given above.
Such racist structures exist here at Trinity. Two years ago Cleo held a Pimps and Hos party, one in a long string of such parties that had been held on campus. (These parties were so ubiquitous that Cleo was attempting to parody them; their effort failed because they still uncritically accepted the racist and misogynist stereotypes involved.) Prior to this party, no one on the faculty or in the administration, to the best of my knowledge, challenged the students on the fact that these parties involved racist and sexist themes and were offensive to many members of the Trinity community (minority and non-minority). When I and a few others objected to the Cleo party, the silence from the administration was deafening. Many of my colleagues were also silent; indeed, more than one told me privately that this was “no big deal.” Based on this and other incidents, and given the sense of minority students that their concerns are ignored and denigrated, I think we need to explore more deeply the ways in which Trinity is complicit in maintaining these structures by not challenging the racist ideas and tropes that are imported to Trinity from the broader culture.
Professor Kassow attempted to provide an alternative explanation for these events by pointing to the “drinking culture” on campus, and others have argued explicitly that the incident on Vernon Street was not racism but only drunken belligerence and incivility. I do not deny that alcohol was involved, and I have long decried the fact that the administration will not abolish fraternities or crack down on the drunkenness they facilitate. But I believe that Trinity needs to get beyond this facile explanation and explore what lies beneath. Alcohol does not create racist slurs—it merely eliminates the inhibitions that keep them from being spoken. Is a student a racist (again in the narrow sense defined above) for shouting “nigger” while drunk? No, not a priori. But I think we do have to ask what is in his background and worldview that makes racism and homophobia come to the surface? Again, this reflects the structural and cultural racism prevalent in American society. No one shouts “Papist” or “Romanist” at a Catholic student, even when drunk: the darker strains of anti-Catholicism are mostly gone from American culture. But racism and homophobia are still present, and this is what feeds and shapes the drunken acts that irrupt on campus.
Professor Kassow also suggests that our location is to blame, since it “inculcates in some students a feeling of fear and prejudice towards people of color.” He seems to imply that this is a legitimate (though perhaps unfortunate) response, since he excoriates his colleagues for their hypocrisy in calling on students to “embrace the community” while fleeing to the suburbs at sundown. I enjoy walking daily through our neighborhood, shopping in the local stores, eating in the restaurants, and occasionally going to mass at the local parish church. Our neighborhood is working class and predominantly Black and Latino, and has many of the problems associated with urban poverty everywhere, which is why I chose to live in West Hartford, and I do not apologize for this fact. Many of the people living in our neighborhood would like to live elsewhere as well and would move if their finances allowed it. But the state of our neighborhood should not be used as an excuse for racism on the part of our students. Rather, we need to expose the cultural framework that translates into these prejudices.
Racist incidents may be common at Wesleyan, Yale, or other liberal arts colleges; since they are driven by the racism still present in American society, they may well be. But it is clear to me (and to the vast majority of my colleagues who signed the open letter) that it is a serious and pressing problem here at Trinity. Therefore, I believe that the college needs to confront it head on. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away, and it does make us complicit in the acts that do occur. The Trinity mission statement says that our goal is to help students “free their minds from parochialism and prejudice” in order to “lead examined lives.” In order to do so we must first critically examine our own institutional blind-spots.
There is no magic bullet: no perfect disciplinary policy, no perfect housing system, no perfect multi-cultural requirement, no perfect admissions policy. Certainly my own first year seminars on race and class in America have shown me that I cannot singlehandedly change campus culture. But I believe that at least some of my students have begun to think more deeply about these matters. They may not agree with me—I am not interested in “indoctrination” but rather in inculcating critical inquiry. To the extent that this happens in my seminar and courses like it, then I believe that they have done some good, and they need to be encouraged and institutionalized. Similarly, other approaches will hopefully also yield incremental (albeit modest) improvements.
However we proceed, I believe that Trinity can no longer continue to accept the status quo: a few days of outrage, a letter or two from the administration, a committee whose report is filed and forgotten, a few recommendations that are abandoned due to lack of funding. Our students, all our students, deserve better.
Read Prof. Kassow’s view here: Halt! Let’s Understand This FIRST! by Professor Kassow