Unconscious Racism against Black Women?
Recent events suggest that some inherent if unconscious racism still exists among some faculty and students at American universities. It is certainly noticeable that two courageous black women should have been slighted by two major universities both of which portray themselves as supporters of diversity. It is ironic since both women have risen above the difficult circumstances of their early lives to high levels of accomplishment.
On April 8, 2014 Brandeis University, the self-proclaimed champion of freedom of expression, rescinded its offer of an honorary degree to the outspoken humanitarian defender of women, Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, because of her criticism of Islam. Then, on May 3, 2014 Condoleezza Rice, born in Birmingham, Alabama, withdrew from accepting an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and delivering the commencement speech she had been invited to give at Rutgers University on May 18. She explained that her appearance had become so controversial that she was withdrawing in order not to cast a shadow on what should be a celebratory day.
The biased protestors, a combination of aging radical leftists still fighting the Vietnam War and extreme Islamists fighting any hint of criticism of their religion, triumphed in two battles in their war against two extraordinary women who happen not to be leftists. In this age of professed multiculturalism and obeisance to the ideology of diversity, the very vindictiveness of the opponents of these two accomplished and dignified women with exemplary life stories is astonishing. One leader of the protests against Ms. Rice called her a “war criminal.”
The question has to be asked: why are these aging leftist radicals and the Muslims so vehemently opposed to honoring intelligent, accomplished, self-made black women who embody moral authority by their conduct, but with whom they disagree? Is their intolerant attitude a denigration of women in general, or is it evidence of a still-embedded prejudice against blacks, and persistence of racism, that emerged in these instances? Neither of the two women fits the stereotype of the politically correct white radicals that typecasts blacks as automatic liberals who must agree with their leftist agenda. Both of the two women are in fact conservatives and defenders of western values, freedom of expression, and the rights of women.
Ali, an early victim of misogyny at the age of five when she was subjected to genital mutilation and then as a teenager to an undesired marriage to a distant cousin, a woman facing threats of death after her criticism of Islam, has become the very model of an emancipated black African woman. Rice, after facing discrimination in her early years in segregated Birmingham, barred from amusement parks, denied hotel rooms, and deliberately given bad food at restaurants, nevertheless went to college at age 15 and graduated at age 19 with a degree in political science from the University of Denver where she studied under Josef Korbel, the father of Madeleine Albright.
In addition to her sporting accomplishments as a highly skilled skater, and her cultural achievements as a gifted pianist just short of concert performance level who played with Yo Yo Ma and for Queen Elizabeth, Rice’s public career was meteoric. Yes, she can be faulted; one can easily challenge her decision to regard Brahms as a favorite composer. Yet even the biased, aging protestors at Rutgers might admire her record as a scholar of Russian affairs and as provost of Stanford University, her appointment as National Security Advisor to President Bush in December 2000 and her confirmation as Secretary of State in January 2005, only the second African-American, and the second woman to be appointed to that position.
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, is the state’s preeminent, comprehensive public institution of higher education, the eighth-oldest U.S. institution of higher learning in the U.S. With a student body of 65,000 from all over the U.S. and abroad, of whom 53% are women, and over half identify as non-Caucasian, the University has justifiable claim to be diverse, in age, sexual orientation, and ethnic background.
The real question is whether the University is now able to uphold the principle of diversity when political opinion is concerned. The Rutgers motto includes the phrase “sun of righteousness.” The present biased aging protestors are far from righteous in preventing free speech for those individuals with whom they disagree. They justify their opposition by arguing that Rice played an important part in decisions about the Iraq War during the George W. Bush administration, and that she approved of waterboarding.
A small number of students, about fifty, staged anti-war, though not clear what war, sit-in demonstrations outside the office of the Rutgers university president. Bigots at the New Brunswick and Newark campuses -- but not at the Camden campus --ignoring the remarkable success of a conservative African-American woman who could be seen as a role model for students, argued that she brought “negative” but no positive merit to a commencement ceremony. Language can usually be a window into real objectives. The school newspaper, The Daily Targum, illustrated this when it wrote that the university would not be comfortable if its commencement speakers had “questionable politics.”
The university President, Robert Barchi, unflinchingly upheld the academic principles that the bigots, preventing free speech, were violating. He argued that a university should not cave in to demands of those representing a particular political viewpoint, in this case the armchair revolutionaries still seemingly fighting the Vietnam War and their enemies, the dictatorial tyrannies of Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and the two Presidents Bush. Barchi wrote, “Free speech and academic freedom cannot be determined by any group. They cannot insist on consensus or popularity.”
However, universities should insist on truth. One can legitimately disagree with Rice’s views and activities on some complex international issues including the controversial one about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, and the consequent war. Perhaps some of her decisions and actions do not justify her name, con dolcezza (with sweetness). But to claim she was guilty of torture and to refuse to recognize she has a creditable, even libertarian, record on social issues, such as abortion and immigration, is dishonorable and suggests bias against a black woman.
Equally, the biased protestors are hypocritical in arguing that they are not against free speech, which they clearly are, but would welcome Rice to come to Rutgers to take part in a open discourse, academic debate, or forum, knowing that such an invitation would never be forth-coming or possible in view of these disgraceful protests against a black woman who is not a leftist.
The University protestors might but probably will not learn from the dignified, classy exit of Rice from Rutgers. Her parting words were “I have defended America’s belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas. These values are essential to the health of our democracy. But that is not what is at issue here.” This is the individual who was indirectly referred to by the protestors as part of a group of “irresponsible people (who) dishonor the University.” The key, fundamental issue, as Rice perceived, is freedom to express different or unpopular views.
Commencement, as Condoleezza Rice said, should be a time of joyous celebration for graduates and their families. But it should also be the moment when students take heed of a basic element of their education, to listen to and weigh carefully opposing points of view. The intolerant members of the Rutgers faculty and in the student body have done violence to this element by preventing the freedom and exchange of views, and in doing so have dishonored a great university which is now embarrassed by discourteous rudeness towards a gifted African-American woman.
The irony of the discourtesy and political bias towards Rice was made even more bitter by the announcement, on the very day that the Rutgers-Newark faculty voted against Rice’s commencement appearance, that Nancy Pelosi, who is not black and not conservative, would speak at a future campus event in Newark.
One wonders if the Rutgers protestors are interested in anything of real importance in the world, especially abuse of women. At the time of their outbursts against Rice a more imperative incident affecting young black women was occurring. At least 276 schoolgirls, 16 to 18 years old, who are mostly Christians but including some Muslims, girls eager to become teachers or doctors, were kidnapped from their school, an all Girl’s Secondary School in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria, by a fanatical Islamist group Boko Haram, a murderous group with a five-year record of atrocities, that is strongly against the education of women. The intention of the group is to sell the girls into sexual slavery to Muslims in Chad and Cameroon. The women Muslim students at Rutgers have not at this point registered sit-in protests against this barbarism.
One brave young girl has made her protest. This is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot at the age of 15 by a Pakistani Taliban fighter in October 2012 because she advocated education for girls. She joined the protest in London against the abduction of the schoolgirls. By contrast, the Muslim students at Rutgers have remained silent on the cruel action of the Islamists. One knows they will not learn the virtue of tolerance from the aging revolutionaries in the faculty. Yet, one can only hope, even if so far it has been in vain, that they will benefit from open minded education, in which opposing views can be heard, and appreciate that such dialogue is perhaps the best way, to fight intolerant extremism.
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.