Monday, December 03, 2007

Silence Fosters Racism at Columbia

Silence Fosters Racism at Columbia
By Michael Shannon

The seeds of intellectual racism have found fertile ground on 36 acres in Morningside Heights these past few years. Columbia has established itself as a prominent site in the recent emergence of the thinking man's brand of bigotry, a phenomenon that has swelled on college campuses around the United States. Our school has achieved yet another first-tier ranking, just not the kind intended by the Manhattanville expansion.

Intellectual racism is distinct from the popular conception of prejudice—"old-fashioned racism." Old-fashioned racism is a working-class notion, more emotional than anything. It arises out of fear and resentment against perceived threats to a way of life.

New or "symbolic" racism has been a rather languid force in this country through the years of political correctness, but a particular form of it is finding a growing number of adherents among the nation's finest. Not quite a revival of early-20th-century notions—the kind that disgusted Langston Hughes when he arrived at 116th and Broadway—but just as prevalent with the brightest American youth.

We are coming out of the long, dull years of PC colorblindness and hushed questions, a period when even debate about the state of race and minorities in America was enough to mark you as racist. Now the children of that era, the intelligent ones foremost, are asking the questions that are still taboo:

-Why haven't blacks reached the level of prosperity of whites or even many immigrant populations over fifty years after Brown vs. Board of Education?-If Islam is not a religion that promotes violence, why do most religious conflicts these days involve Muslim extremists?-Why are so few women in the upper echelons of academia in math and science?

That last one was enough to get Larry Summers ceremoniously drummed out of Harvard in 2006. And yet they are worthwhile questions that don't necessarily mean a racist or chauvinist is asking. They are the sorts of questions that American college students are asking themselves, and very few of them are prejudiced when they first start thinking about the answers.

From an early age, we have had these assumptions about race, diversity, and tolerance drilled into us, and we have been expected to take them for granted. But we have also been groomed to challenge popular beliefs and reject the consensus. Now we have a generation of elite students skeptical of the value of diversity and doubting all the lines about racial equality.

The intellectual racists know how to question these beliefs—they do it well—but they have no impetus to find the complex answers which reside beneath the surface. The question "Why haven't black Americans achieved equality with affirmative action and welfare policies designed to overcome systemic prejudice?" is seen as reason enough to consider the popular view of racial equality as wrong.

Of course, most intellectual racists do not hate blacks or whomever their views of racial hierarchy affect. Plenty of them have black friends whom they get along with, yet consider biologically inferior.

When an intellectual racist expresses his beliefs, he refers to genetic makeup, chronic behavioral discrepancies between races, and statistics to back up his theories. This is not old-fashioned racism for the everyman—it is pseudo-science. Usually they speak of genes that don't actually exist or use biology as if it were fate. That we are not slaves to our biology, that genes are nodes of potential rather than decrees, and that long-standing social mechanisms have an incredible influence on the development of any group of people are all ideas that never seem to enter the racist's monologue.

And it is a monologue. We don't have discourse here over issues of race and social stratification. Many kids find no place to openly express their misgivings about the consensus. Rather, they harbor these questions until they blossom into intellectual racism. The only form of expression open to them are the anonymous acts of vandalism that have scarred this campus lately.

On the other side of the coin, we have a group of well-intentioned but misguided kids at Columbia who believe that the only way to defeat intolerance is to silence it. Thus the conservatives are practically treated as pariahs at this school and the Jim Gilchrists of the world are censored. Don't get me wrong: I am not about to defend what Gilchrist represents and I have yet to find an issue that I didn't stand well left of center on, but freedom of speech is a freedom for all the last I heard, and this culture of well-meaning intolerance is just the catalyst intellectual racism needed.

Normally, I would encounter some adversity at this point in my column, 800 words in without having mentioned Columbia sports. But the editors are approaching the end of their terms and are swamped with work tonight, so I am willing to bet that they don't have the energy for an argument, especially when some confusion over column assignment has left us currently without a full roster for the week. Moreover, I am in a pissy mood and in no condition to write about bull-riding or Snood as I have in earlier columns.

But here's my half-hearted attempt to justify putting this piece on the sports page. Historically, sports have brought upon significant improvements in race relations. There's something about that idolization of an athlete of a different color that seems to elevate his entire race. The emotional connection one makes with the heroes of the field and court certainly lessens the passionate racism in some fans.

Do I think that sports could play a role in combating racism here at Columbia? Frankly, no. We are not dealing with emotional prejudice but thinking man's bigotry. Unless questions like "Why are there so few Jewish athletes at the upper levels of sports?" come up, then I think the discussion will have to start elsewhere. In reference to that question, as with all of those aforementioned, any response that does not mention social and historical trends, cultural influence, and common familiar values in the community will be incomplete.

I am no idealist—I tend toward the underbelly of realism. The most impact I can expect from this article is a headline in Bwog's QuickSpec tomorrow ("Renegade Sports Columnist Rants On Race Theory"), and maybe a comment posted by a friend of mine ("Shut yr trap you pinko rube"). I just hope something comes along that revives our collective sense of open expression and discourse.

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