I’m going to break the first rule of column writing by starting off with a quote from Barack Obama’s now-famous “More Perfect Union” speech: “The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.”
Obama made this speech in March of 2008 at the height of the national firestorm over grainy YouTube videos of Rev. Jeremiah Wright shouting “God damn America!” And now — with the announcement that Africana Studies will be folded into the College of Arts and Sciences, and the subsequent backlash and the backlash-to-the-backlash that followed — Cornell has a racial controversy of its very own. One that won’t reach national firestorm-status, but one that nonetheless exposes the black anger and white resentment that Obama so thoughtfully discussed in Philadelphia.
There has been outrage from all sides, with Africana students and faculty condemning the University’s “institutional racism” and a litany of Sun columns and editorials condemning the protesters’ “harsh language and revolutionary dialogue.”
What emerged was a rhetorical battle royale between the protestors and the commentators: “white supremacy” v. “sense of entitlement,” “leave us the fuck alone” v. “we must acquiesce,” “let’s have a dialogue” v. “defer to the professionals,” and finally, in the Main Event, “institutional lynching” v. “harmless change.”
But all this back-and-forth has done is reveal one simple fact: We have no idea how to talk about race.
This is not exactly a new idea. In fact, it’s probably on the list of the top-ten most lamentable topics for left-leaning intellectual types. In a society that has repressed its violent racial past to the point that its social discourse is completely deracialized, how can we talk about the role of race? How can we talk about the racial dimensions of the Africana controversy when we have only ever dealt with race as a dead-and-buried historical artifact?
Protests of “institutional racism” and “white supremacy” seem antiquated — remnants of a bygone era when oppression was real and protest courageous. In our own time and place those words just seem silly. When race is portrayed as inconsequential to the way we justify and understand social actions, to use overtly racial language is taken as an attempt to instigate unnecessary confrontation.
This is apparent in two recent Sun opinion pieces on the controversy. In a Jan. 25 editorial, The Sun wrote that the race-based criticism “ultimately prevents fair and open discussion.” Additionally, in his Jan. 24 column, Judah Bellin ’12 wrote that “Africana has not been playing straight with the University.” In both these insistences the authors characterize racial rhetoric as unfair, as if mentioning race poisons the discourse — as if talking about race needlessly distracts us from focusing on the real issues.
This is not to say that the protesters’ assertions of racism, institutional and otherwise, are verifiably true. Nor is it to say that the commentators insistence on condemning these assertions comes out of an engrained, unconscious racism. But we need to resist the urge to dismiss dissent that is racial in nature. Before we decide that someone who says the words “institutional racism” ought not be a part of our discussion, we need to examine the ways in which racism still functions.
Race and racism are not the small, marginal issues that our artificially deracialized rhetoric implies they are. Understanding race and cultivating the communicative tools necessary to talk about race in a meaningful way are crucial to substantively dealing with issues like Africana’s move.
Ironically (or not), this controversy and the lack of substantive dialogue surrounding it have codified the need for a thriving Africana Studies program at Cornell. Devoting resources and assigning importance to Africana not only ups the University’s diversity credentials, it provides a setting where race and racism can be given the serious consideration that the broader society seems reluctant to allow.
While I don’t think Africana’s move is part of a larger Day Hall conspiracy to dismantle the Center and liquidate the major, it would be a great shame for Africana to lose the resources and, yes, self-determination it needs to keep issues of race and racism at the forefront.