Terms of Racial Debate

September 7, 2003 8:00 pm0 comments

Racism: a. The theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race; b. = racialism: Belief in the superiority of a particular race leading to prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those in close proximity who may be felt as a threat to one’s cultural and racial integrity or economic well-being. [O.E.D.]

Recently, allegations of racism at Cornell have appeared in these pages and within the University community. Some argue that “bias and unjust treatment” of minority students pervades Cornell to the extent of oppression. Others contend that program houses and ethnic studies programs are racist. Both views are disingenuous, without support in history, fact or common sense. There can be an honest debate about these topics if people choose to voice their opinion in reason. Or, people can continue pointing fingers and asking, ‘Who’s the bigger racist?’ In the context of the campus, this misused word has become a tired and useless epithet that reveals lazy, hollering, and dogmatic opinions.

The suggestion of ‘reverse discrimination’ — that white students are treated as minority students were 40 years ago — is preposterous. To those who argue with such rhetoric, we would remind you of the selfless convictions and actions of Mickey Schwerner ’61, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, members of the Congress on Racial Equality. At the age of 21, Schwerner and the two others were murdered by true racists — members of the Ku Klux Klan — when they went to Mississippi to fight for equality and voting rights. And back then, neither the FBI, nor the nation was ready to face the grim reality of the crime. It took the civil rights movement years to overcome pervasive racism in voting, housing, employment and education. In response to the modern debate over affirmative action, we could point out that legacy students and athletes are also given preference in admissions, but no one is screaming about that. And we could point out that the admissions department would never exclude someone solely because he or she happens to be white, as was often the case for African Americans at institutions across the nation until the civil rights movement.

On the flip side, students who see the occurrence of racial bias as evidence of wholly unfriendly race relations at Cornell are equally deluded about the same history, facts and common sense. We would remind you that the Cornell of 2003 is nothing like the oft-recalled Cornell of 1969, and that societal attitudes about race in 2003 have come a long way from 1969. Today, Cornell provides generous support for minority student recruitment, ethnic studies programs and program houses. And we can point out that the admissions department regularly denies application to white students with better SAT scores and grades than African American students.

While the conversation of race still pervades our publication, our University and our society, no participant in recent debate has devoted enough time and energy to the subject to justify the use of the word racism. Instead, there’s just smirking innuendo and inferential arguments: different standards are used to judge white and African American students and, therefore, Cornell is a racist institution! Bias incidents happen and, therefore, Cornell is a racist institution! We’d see things differently if writers approached the issue with a measured, exacting logic and fact.

The rhetoric of racism is too easily thrown around on this campus. While bias, prejudice and discrimination do occur, the bigger problem is that we’re not addressing those issues in the correct manner. Instead, we get caught up in the ‘Who’s the bigger racist?’ game. Once that rhetoric is out there, it’s almost impossible to re-focus on the issues. This parody even marginalizes the real problems that persist: What values should be prioritized at Cornell? Do ethnic studies and program houses achieve those goals? We could go on, but it’s hard to take the debate seriously when there is no serious debate.

Archived article by Sun Staff