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Racist scum? Colleges should set higher standards

on Tuesday, 17 October 2017. Posted in Editorials, Opinions

By Richard Eckstrom

S.C. Comptroller

I believe that most Americans are repulsed by racism. Unfortunately, their feelings of repulsion are often exploited for political gain.

Especially now, in a time of hyper-racialization, the rush to frame all issues in racial terms often seems done to create political capital or avenge a political setback. Claims of racism have become a weapon to attack even benign sentiments, including a person’s preference for a particular political candidate or party.

Recent online rantings by a Clemson University professor generated a backlash on and off campus. His behavior offers a good example of the senseless race-based hysteria taking place nationally.

“All Trump (sic) supporters, nay, all Republicans, are racist scum,” read an August Facebook post by the professor. 

“All republicans? Yes. Your complacency made this happen. Pick a side: denounce your affiliation, or admit you’re a racist.”

Another of his posts went to an even further extreme by appearing to advocate violence: “I admire anyone who stands up against white supremacy, Violent or non-violent.”

The first thing that strikes me is that Clemson University, a school I truly appreciate and admire, should be embarrassed to have this man as a professor. Frankly, his comments were ignorant. Generalizing roughly half the American population as racist simply because of their presidential preference exhibits woefully unsophisticated reasoning, especially for someone of a university professor’s stature.

On his website, the professor – who instructs a course in something called “human centered computing” – says his research focuses on “online decisions” such as “Which app should I install?” and “Should I post this on Facebook or not?" His own poor decision-making is not only ironic, but it raises questions about his value as an instructor. After an outcry from members of the Clemson community, the university issued a statement condemning “expressions condoning or advocating violence or hatred.” Was its response adequate?

College campuses have long leaned toward the liberal end of the spectrum, and that’s becoming increasingly so. (That’s not just my opinion; it’s supported by research and survey results, including a recent UCLA survey of university faculties nationwide.) And that leftward lean has shown itself in troubling ways. Efforts to scrub conservative ideas from many campuses are well-documented, with scheduled speakers being disinvited or forced to cancel presentations. 

The expression of views that don’t fit the prevailing campus view has sparked protests, no-holds-barred shaming, even calls for disciplinary action.

It seems that many colleges and universities take a much more serious posture against “politically incorrect” speech than they do against genuine infractions of greater consequence, such as the advocacy of violence. In that regard, it’s interesting to compare how Clemson dealt with the professor’s comments to the way it handled an incident last year.

In April 2016, an incident which was initially thought to be racially motivated spurred campus protests and a nine-day sit-in, as well an investigation into who was responsible. As it turns out, administrators early on had determined that the incident wasn’t race-related at all, yet chose to use it as a “teachable moment” – a revelation that later came to light after students obtained emails between university officials.

As part of this teachable moment, Clemson announced an ambitious eight-point plan, including mandatory diversity training for its employees.

In the wake of the recent “racist scum” episode, I’d offer that a different kind of training is in order. Perhaps the training should be in common decency… a lesson to teach the public benefit of using persuasion, rather than insults, to advance a viewpoint.

Those in positions to educate young minds and shape perspectives have an obligation to strive for a higher standard of dialogue. At the very least, a college professor should comprehend the difference between honest preferences for how we are governed and ill-will toward an entire race.

All reasonable people agree that racism is a scourge.  Imposing racist overtones to anything and everything demeans the efforts of good people on both the left and right who are honestly seeking to combat the scourge, and further widens the gulf that divides us.

Richard Eckstrom is a CPA and the state’s Comptroller.

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