June 26, 2020

WILK | Bull and Bookclubs: The Higher Ed Response to Bigotry

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A four-hundred-year history of American racial brutality has streets across the country demanding change. And yet unresponsiveness is still being wrapped up aesthetically as a concession. Instead of taking action, various establishments rely on sundry statements from the atonement assembly line to quiet rebellion and save face. Police murders and anti-Blackness are being met with a golden age of apology, in which Cornell is disappointingly and unsurprisingly participatory.

Racism, and the magnitude of its gruesomeness, is uncapturable. It’s not contained in police precincts or penitentiaries, it’s everyone’s favorite new vocabulary word: systemic, pervasive and fundamental in American structures. And as this issue is increasingly illuminated, and calls for accountability are made across government offices, corporations, school boards, franchises and celebrity social media accounts, they’ve been met with “Sorry.” It should go without saying that sorry really doesn’t cut it when we’re talking about racism, even if it’s accompanied by other performative measures like black squares, Toni Morrison quotes, declarations of solidarity or book clubs. But insincerity is the least of the issue with a public apology when an institution actively works to silence and neglect the very victims it’s supposedly making amends to.

Statements like the NFL’s, Amazon’s and Cornell’s mock Black Americans and their struggles. They mitigate racism and their heavy, constant hand in it as they claim to be “saddened” by “incidents” of racism in “current events” or any “inappropriate” or “insensitive” behavior that “isn’t reflective of [x]’s mission.” Racism isn’t an offensive or tragic incident, it’s a violent history in America, as at Cornell University, and these words don’t account for that, or anything, really. What they do instead is pretend that the words of Nate Panza and Prof. David Collum are less than deplorable comments that the university is deeply ashamed to be associated with. Of course, the university is still facilitating both of these individuals because, despite their most ‘sincere’ claims, racism like this doesn’t bother them. It’s just the mild variety; Cornell’s used to consuming it over lunch with faculty like Collum.

Contrary to what their textbook use of phrases like “systemic racism” and “structural inequality” suggests, university administration may never understand that racism isn’t mild. It’s only the blindness of privilege and carelessness that could consider racism, even in the slightest and least ill-intended micro-aggression, benign. To President Martha E. Pollack, Vice Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Opperman and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi, it seems to be — but, then again, even the vilest of racism is never immediately dangerous to white people anyway. Neat little classifications of anti-Blackness along a spectrum of outrage operate on white entitlement to decide what’s acceptable and what’s abhorrent, which is dangerous because, again, racism is never benign to people of color.

Black students are traumatized daily by the audacity and unaccountability that whiteness is afforded at this institution and everywhere else in the world. On Instagram, the accounts @DoBetterCornell and @BlackAtCornell were organized to highlight the seriousness of Cornell’s racism problem, since it’s clearly lost on administration, but the effort to bring attention to on-campus racial injustice isn’t new. It’s just always met with the same, tired apologies and half-efforts only meant to pacify and distract, not change. But even in the absence of numerous Sun articles and online testimonies chronicling the threateningly racist environment at Cornell, the administration would be aware; they record incidents themselves and publish them in their annual bias reports. In the past two years, the vast majority of bias incidents reported, reaching into the hundreds, have been on the basis of race and ethnicity.

Still though, Cornell boldly defends Collum’s right to engage with racist apologists of police brutality. They have not commented at all on the video of Nate Panza, but I assume they’d be “so sorry” to notify us that it’s his right to spit racist slurs at his friends over a night of beers and Doritos. As free as people are to express them, these “opinions,” “mistakes,” and “ill reflections of character” affect marginalized people. Deeply. Every day and everywhere. Panza and Collums take these opinions into their classrooms and locker rooms and workplaces and even if they aren’t announced to the faces of those they endanger, their poisoned words endanger them still. And the painful part is this: I know there’s no need or use for me to elaborate on this to an audience of Cornell students, alum and faculty. Higher education, especially in the ivies and other self-proclaimed elite institutions, should be keenly aware of the systemic nature of racism (whether they teach about it, or actively perpetuate it). These are the people who have done the reading or were supposedly assigned the reading or at the very least have always had access to the reading, and yet: a book club.

President Martha E. Pollack completed her undergraduate linguistics degree at Dartmouth College. She knows all about words, about their importance and meaning and context. Our university president shouldn’t require a reading list to understand the power that Panza’s and Collum’s comments have over the realities that marginalized students face on campus. And even faculty who could learn from a book club need much more than just that if Cornell has any hope of serving “any person.” It’s so clear that these efforts aren’t in the interest of the groups Cornell wants you to believe they mean every time they emphasize “any person” in times like these and on diversity-stuffed brochures.

Meaningless public apologies aren’t meant for the affected; they serve to clear the conscious and image of the aggressor. And, ironically enough, they also admit the institution’s deep attachment to racism. To institutions that uphold white supremacy, the brutal, omnipresent problem of racism that they reduce when they refer to it only within “recent events” indicates that racism doesn’t carry enough weight, as a Black problem, for them to empathize with, much less prioritize as a white issue to solve. Rather, ‘these recent events’ and the paltry words offered as a response to them, is an equation of black, white and green. Black lives and Black pain are nothing more than beads on an abacus to be measured against white feelings and finances, which leaves Black students constantly forced to confront the truth that “we’re just dollar signs to them,” and our combined worth could never amount to the power that those other white and green painted counting pebbles hold, and have held for centuries.

Alecia Wilk is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this summer.