by James A. Bacon
In the previous post I gave a chronological account of how a classroom joke delivered by Associate Professor Jeffrey Leopold in University of Virginia business class exploded into a full-fledged racial controversy. The post was a straightforward, just-the-facts-ma’am narrative of what happened. I made every effort to give all sides of the story and to keep my opinions out of it. With this post, I’ll say what I think.
In the scale of injustice, the Leopold incident is trivial. A professor who knocks down a salary about twice the income of the average American household suffered personal embarrassment and was relieved from solo teaching of his class. He will go back to work. His life will return to normal. He did not die with a policeman’s knee pressing down on his neck.
But the story of how the drama unfolded tells volumes about the nature of race relations at the University of Virginia and, by extension, other elite institutions of higher education. The story illustrates the ever-morphing definition of what constitutes “racism,” the narrowing scope of what is permissible to say out loud, and how those who disagree with the cultural Marxist critique of America as a irredeemably racist nation are condemned and silenced as racists.
Those things are indisputable. But I would go farther. The Leopold incident reveals the depth of animosity that many minority students, especially African Americans, bear toward UVa. The young Asian woman who posted, “FUCK UVA” on the door of her lawn residence was not an outlier. She reflected the views of many on the grounds. The intellectual climate at UVa fosters the sense of minority victimhood and grievance. Perceived slights are viewed as acts of intolerable and unforgivable bigotry. Not only have the UVa administration and faculty allowed these sentiments to emerge but they have actively fostered the bitterness and resentment.
The consequences are tragic. Perceiving themselves as under continual assault by racist students and professors, many black students at UVa have retreated into an ethnic cocoon. And many whites, never knowing what innocent remark might cast them in the role of racist, are understandably wary about interacting with blacks. UVa, like many other elite higher-ed institutions, has become an incubator of racial misunderstanding, suspicion and animosity.
No, the joke was not racist. Let’s start with the the jest, which played on national and geographic stereotypes. The United Nations conducted a worldwide survey, asking, “Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to the food shortage in the rest of the world?” The survey was a bust, went the gag. The Chinese didn’t know what “honest” means. Russians didn’t know what “opinions” were. Europeans didn’t know what shortage” meant. Americans didn’t know what “the rest of the world meant.” Africans didn’t know what “food” meant.
Leopold did not say “black people” didn’t know what food meant. He referred to Africa, a vast geographic region where, tragically, most of the world’s famines have occurred. According to the Wikipedia list of famines, the world has seen 21 famines in the past 50 years. Seventeen occurred in Africa. That’s just a fact. Maybe the joke was “insensitive,” but it wasn’t racist. And in none of the materials I reviewed has anyone explained how it is racist. Only if one makes the non-factual assumption that Africa = blacks (ignoring the presence of other races and considerable genetic variability among dark-skinned peoples), if one dismisses the association of Africa with chronic food insufficiency, and if one overlooks the fact that the joke was an equal opportunity offender is it remotely possible to suggest that the punch line was racist.
In the University of Virginia today the person with the most exquisitely delicate sensibilities gets to determine what words are “insensitive” or “offensive.” The snowflakes set the boundaries of acceptable discourse. The boundaries of the impermissible expand by the day, and people often don’t discover the boundaries until after they transgress them and someone decides after the fact to make an issue of them. Of course, only some people’s sensibilities count. No one considers the sensibilities and feelings of, say, patriots appalled by insults to America, or fundamentalist Christians offended by assaults on their religious beliefs, or white people who object to being stereotyped as racist. Only the sensibilities of those on the ideological left are given weight. Anything can be — and is — said of conservatives without fear of repercussion.
Equally distressing, to put “Africans don’t know what food means” in the same category as use of the N-word, a term that is inextricably bound with the history of American racism, is simply absurd. We are witnessing Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”) applied to rhetoric. When anything and everything can be construed as “racist” and can evoke the same emotional response as words that are indisputably racist, the term is as debased as Confederate currency. It ceases to make meaningful distinctions.
Intolerance of dissent. The discussion about the Africans-don’t-know-the-meaning-of-food quip revealed another attribute of contemporary discourse: the intolerance of dissenting views and the quashing of debate. The black militants supporting a resolution to track and punish racist comments by faculty members had no interest in discussing the matter. When Nick Cabrera, a first-year student of Puerto Rican ethnicity, questioned whether the joke could be called racist, other members of the UVa Student Council didn’t bother to explain themselves. Rather, they responded that non-blacks have no business arguing with blacks what racism is. If black people feel that it’s racist… it’s racist. If you don’t understand that… you’re racist.
One woman, Zyahna Bryant, was especially contemptuous. She felt no obligation to explain what was racist about Leopold’s remark. Such a task, she said, was too “exhausting” for her as a black woman to undertake. Cabrera should just “educate himself” by taking courses, of which there were an abundance at UVa. “If you want to be educated on that, don’t ask black women to do it. Take a class.” If you can’t vote in support of the resolution in solidarity with black students, she told Cabrera, “you don’t need to be a student leader. If you can’t talk about racism in a way that’s real and true, you don’t need to be a student leader.”
Cabrera asked how the “strike system” called for in the resolution would be administered. He expressed concerns about due process. Not one person on the 38-seat student council objected to Bryant’s dismissive logic or otherwise rose to the first-year’s defense.
The administration’s role. We have only hints of how the administration handled the controversy. I asked UVa to tell me about the process used to dig into the Leopold matter. Officials are restricted in what they can say about personnel matters, so the University had no comment other than to say that COMM 180 is being restructured as a team-taught course and that Leopold will return as a member of that team.
But there are hints of the administration’s role. In his letter of apology, Leopold said, “Over the past several days, and with counsel from McIntire leadership, I have reflected on my actions.” We don’t know what counsel he was given, but we do know that he made an abject apology.
We also know from Nma Okafor, head of the Organization of African Students, that the OAS received received an email from the Provost’s office “who wanted to open a dialogue for letting us know about the training that they (faculty members) are doing.” The university conducts yearly diversity and bias training for everyone teaching and assisting courses.
We also know from a message posted on the COMM 180 chat board that McIntire’s dean, Nicole Thorne Jenkins, was monitoring the controversy closely. Leopold’s defenders had better tread carefully, one student warned. “Names were given to the professor and the dean. … The university, given its history, does not make light of these situations. … The dean has shared with us that these views are not representative of the comm school. Many of the comments that have been shared (and documented) are in direct opposition to common school values.”
Update: A spokesperson for the McIntire School says that Jenkins had no personal interaction with the students to share views. “Just because a student wrote so in a chat does not mean it happened.”
Clearly, the McIntire administration sided with the students who found Leopold’s joke “insensitive” and “offensive.” It appears that the dean leaned on him to issue a groveling apology.
Update: The McIntire School spokesperson said that the assertion that Jenkins “leaned on Professor Leopold to issue the apology” is “unfounded.”
Hatred for UVa undiminished. Although the militants can count on the UVa administration to side with them, that favoritism does not endear the institution to them. They have the litany down pat. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder and a rapist. The university was built by slaves. The university is tainted by decades of discrimination and racism. All the institutional sins to which President Jim Ryan, his predecessors and their acolytes have flagellated the university over the years are thrown back at them. If they thought that they might win the appreciation of militant minorities by digging up and amplifying UVa’s past sins, they are severely deluded.
“We know what UVa is,” said Bryant during the student council meeting earlier this month. “We know that … hundreds of people were enslaved to build this university. We know that professors say the N-word all the time. We know that students say the N-word all the time. We know there hasn’t been a black female student council president since 2003.”
In a similar vein, student council member Jason Evans said, “Tenured professors have power. They cannot be fired unless they violated egregious laws. White men and women say racist shit and do not get fired. … Jeffrey Leopold was not tenured, but most of the professors are tenured. I’m sure a lot of them are racist.”
These are not the words of people who feel appreciative of their UVa experience. Marinating in the intellectual battery acid of progressive ideology, many minority students — by no means all, but enough to elect militants to the student council — have embraced victimhood and grievance. By reliving past injustices and catering to ever-mutating sensibilities, the mostly white UVa administrators have encouraged black students to build their identities around the suffering of their forebears and then bequeathed them moral power on the basis of that suffering. As black conservative Shelby Steele has written, militants see black suffering as a “moral power to be wielded rather than a condition to be overcome.”
Some blacks at UVa — I can’t say how many — self-segregate to seek succor for their wounded feelings. Rather than join mainstream UVa society, they retreat from it. Hyper-sensitive to micro-aggressions that nobody knows are micro-aggressions until after the fact, they discourage white students from taking the risk of fraternizing with them. Sadly, with the possible exception of their enablers in the administration, the African American militants at UVa are their own worst enemies.
This column has been republished with permission from Bacon’s Rebellion.