Saturday, November 14, 2015

* Black and White: College Campuses 2015

I was a student in towns where two of the most frightening events in the history of student unrest (one by blacks, the other by whites) took place in 1969 and 1970: Ithaca, New York and Kent, Ohio.

At Cornell, black students protesting racism occupied Willard Straight Hall in 1969 and then armed themselves with rifles and guns, refusing to surrender the premises. Later their photo appeared on the front page of the New York Times,  with upraised rifles as they left  Willard Straight when a compromise was reached with Cornell’s administration.

At Kent State four white students were shot dead and nine white students were wounded by predominantly white Ohio National guardsmen who fired into a student protest at high noon on May 4, 1970 after four days of anti-war protests and the burning of an ROTC building resulted in armed occupation of the campus by guardsmen.

Thirty six years and three masters degrees later (one in divinity from Yale), I haven’t the slightest idea what these events “mean” in the larger picture of American history, especially this year --- 2015 --- when racism has reared its ugly head again and student protests have actually forced the University of Missouri president to resign.  Accusations of his indifference to complaints of racial discrimination felt by blacks on his campus, had led blacks on the football team to boycott future games, jeopardizing millions of dollars in revenue. Exit the President .

Missouri isn’t the only place in turmoil.  Yale---my alma mater -- has been the scene of protests for days now and its president, Peter Salovey, has been anything but indifferent, challenging the campus to debate whether or not to remove  the name of John C. Calhoun from one of its eight residential colleges because he (Calhoun, a U. S. Senator) )  was an avowed white supremacist who defended slavery before the Civil War.  What a can of worms he opened. Yale names its buildings after distinguished alumni.  Calhoun graduated in 1804 with a B.A.

Ithaca College, another of my alma maters, has been in similar turmoil for a month.  Its student body rendered a “no confidence” vote in its young white president, Tom Rochon, after what it perceived as indifference to institutional racism on its campus.

What’s going on here? We have a black man sitting in the White House as our elected president.  It is fifty years after the passage of  Lyndon Johnson’s  Civil Rights Act. A black woman, Oprah Winprey,  is the richest woman in the world---- wealthier even than the Queen of England.  Why are blacks angry?

That was the same question I asked in 1969 when I sat in Cornell’s Barton Hall with 5000 people for five days of an administration sanctioned  Teach-in on Racism, the ransom exacted by the Black United Students group  for ending  their armed occupation of Cornell’s Willard  Straight Hall.

How naïve of me.  Why are blacks angry?  Am I kidding? Or just blinded by my white eyes?

Americans in the land of the free and the brave sold blacks like dining-room furniture for 150 years, but without even the dignity of a dining-room set, which Antiques Roadshow today warns must be kept intact.  Fathers and mothers and children had just as much  if not more value  sold off individually than as a group. Keeping them together as a “set” didn’t increase their value at all, and often was a burden to prospective buyers, who may have needed only one new slave.

When purchasing slaves from overseas was made illegal, Americans merely bred them like dogs to increase their stateside  property. “Breeding” is too kind a word, for the actual mating was not the carefully choreographed sexual coupling of purebreds being stood stud, as animal owners put it,  but tantamount to sexual harassment, or even rape, and often by the white owner.

Then came the Civil War and emancipation. And assassination.  And then-------another 100 years of Jim Crow and segregation until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 tried to undo the damage of separate but equal, in which blacks might legally be free but were treated as if they were one step up from Typhoid Mary: separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains, separate bus seats, separate schools.

How naïve of me.  A century or more of assault on the black family (Slaves could not be legally married.) A century or more of assault on black literacy (It was illegal to teach slaves to read); a century of  unspoken contamination and legal quarantine euphemized as “segregation” and legalized by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

How naïve indeed.

But it’s been 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was pushed through Congress by President Johnson.  And there is a statue to black  Martin Luther King on the same Washington mall where is found white Abraham Lincoln’s monument.  And there is a back president  and black first family across town in the White House.

Why are they still angry?

The answer is in the pronoun: they.

It is  called “the impersonal pronoun” and it connotes separateness, outsider-hood, difference.

They aren’t us.

And that is what happened at Kent State even though all the skin of the victims and shooters was white. The long-haired, hippie, anti-war protestors were turned into “them” and as outsiders it was acceptable for them to be killed. I will never forget watching one white mother in Kent, Ohio being interviewed on the street after the shootings.  She said “If my son had long hair and sandals he should have been shot too.”

This isn’t just ignorance. She is talking about her own son.  It is a psychological disorder. I’m not trained in psychology so I can’t put a name to it, but when human beings look at other human beings as “things” (slaves; anti-war protestors) there is something evil afoot.  Race may only be part of it.


Paul D. Keane

M.A., M.Div., M.Ed.

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