November 13, 2009
Race, Violence, and the Columbia ProfessorBy John Leonard
Columbia University architecture professor Lionel McIntyre was arrested for assaulting university employee Camille Davis during a heated debate in a Harlem bar, according to an article in the New York Post. Reportedly, the professor grew increasingly animated during a "fiery exchange" that culminated when he punched his female acquaintance in the face without warning, "so loud the kitchen workers in the back heard it over all the noise." A man was also attacked after he exclaimed, "You don't hit a woman!"
The newsworthiness of the story beyond a notation on the police blotter is questionable until the racial component is added. The black male professor struck a white female school employee in this particular incident.
The alleged motivation for the attack? The second victim was quoted as saying "The punch came out of nowhere. Mac [the professor] was talking to us about white privilege and what I was doing about it -- apparently I wasn't doing enough".
What exactly does white privilege mean to a black man holding the Nancy and George Rupp Associate Professorship in the Practice of Community Development? He's also the director of the Urban Technical Assistance Project at Columbia University, no doubt earning a six-figure income from one of the world's most famous universities. Wasn't affirmative action supposed to remedy the injustices of the past?
What will ever be enough?
A racially charged incident involving a prominent black scholar at a very prestigious Ivy League school...haven't we heard this one before? Well, not exactly. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates' arrest pales in comparison to this case. Gates' insinuation that a white officer renowned for his experience dealing with racial issues was actually a racist is markedly different from this case of physical violence perpetrated against a woman without warning -- a cowardly act by any measure. Gates merely grew belligerent toward the white policeman investigating a reported possible break-in and caused enough of a scene to warrant cooling off; he never took a swing at anybody.
By comparison, McIntyre's actions are those of a thug and a bully. No matter what words were exchanged between him and the victim prior to the assault, they cannot be used to justify his actions. If the attacker were white and the victim black, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would be leading a call for the man's head on a platter.
That shouldn't factor into society's response to acts such as these. This is inexcusable behavior no matter how you switch around the race in the equation, or if you take race and gender out completely. "Person A" should never sucker-punch "person B" in the face. Period.
With a shameful failure to accept personal responsibility for his actions, the professor is quoted to say "It was a very unfortunate incident. I didn't mean for it to explode the way it did."
The situation didn't explode. Professor McIntyre did.
As a white male born and raised in Deep South, I am hypersensitive to every charge of racism and discrimination whether it is directed at me personally or not. While I normally have a very thick skin when it comes to discussion of religion or politics, racial politics and accusations of discrimination hit a nerve that resides just under my epidermal layer. I loathe both discrimination against minorities and false accusations of it with equal enthusiasm.
Painful memories of personal experience involving racism expressed even by elders in my own family remain with me today. I cringed every time I heard someone I loved use the "N"-word to disparage other human beings in general terms simply because of their skin color. But for the longest time I put up with it. Finally my intolerance reached a point where I began to express my disapproval of that language by walking away. I didn't ball up my fist and smash anyone in the face.
Racism should not be tolerated by anyone of any color. It is horribly wrong for a man to punch a woman in the face regardless of the color or gender and how they are switched around or removed from the equation. Violence is colorblind; we all shed red blood.
The premise that it is permissible for black comedians and musicians to use the forbidden "N"-word is simply wrong. Although I admit Chris Rock's routine that differentiates between good black people and bad by using the term was pretty funny, it still makes those of us to whom the word is verboten uncomfortable.
The logic behind use of the word being forbidden only for white people is racist in and of itself and based in part on the false belief that blacks cannot be racist. Many liberals routinely assume Rush Limbaugh is racist because of his conservative views and don't even realize that his most trusted assistant, call-screener "Bo Snerdley," is a black man named James Golden. Conversely, Al Sharpton falsely incites race riots, yet he is treated with respect as a leader of the black community.
The whole point of desegregation and affirmative action was to make what's good for me as a white male good for everybody. The rising tide was supposed to lift all ships, leveling the playing field for those less fortunate. Allowing favorable treatment of a protected minority solves an old inequity but creates a new one.
The old expression "two wrongs don't make a right" remains true today. Atrocious injustices and discrimination against blacks were routinely allowed prior to passage of the Civil Rights Amendment in 1964. No sane or reasonable freedom-loving person can justify opposing the goal of equal treatment for all under the law.
Attorney General Eric Holder seemed to express a different opinion of equality when he defined a hate crime as one committed against a member of a "protected group." Extrapolating Mr. Holder's definition, it wasn't hate that led Mr. McIntyre to smash his fist into his colleague's face. I think it was rage inspired by racial hatred as fomented by Sharpton and his ilk.
I'm proud to live in a country that elected a black man president. While Obama wasn't my choice, nor am I particularly thrilled with the job he's done, I am proud we've come so far in my lifetime to break that racial barrier. He is my president, for better or worse. And it is not racist to oppose his policies.
While there are always two sides to every story, it is difficult to imagine a side that justifies professor McIntyre's assault of Ms. Davis. I'm stumped to think of a scenario that could provoke me to punch a woman in the face. Maybe self-defense -- I remember Clint Eastwood punched Jessica Walter in the movie Play Misty For Me, but only after she stabbed him with a butcher knife. I just can't think of a woman I would find threatening enough to sucker-punch.
The famous words uttered by Martin Luther King -- "I have a dream that [people] will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" -- express the sentiments of many Americans today.
Rodney King put it another way: "Can't we all just get along?"
John Leonard is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His first book, Hybrid Theory: Reconciling Creationism and Evolution Theory, is awaiting publication