Saturday, March 4, 2017

Racism, Revisited

Among many racist acts taking place at all levels of society this week, the gratuitous insult to a group of Black college presidents was notable, because it happened right in the White House (or should I say the Presidential Palace)?

At Howard University, students chose several ways to protest the participation of Wayne A. I. Frederick, the president of their college, in this meeting. One example of their protest: the graffiti shown at right (photo from New York Times):
"It was a scalding message, painted on a university campus sidewalk this week: 'Welcome to the Trump plantation. Overseer: Wayne A. I. Frederick.'"
Howard is one of the most prominent of the historic Black universities, founded in the post-Civil-War era when Black Americans were struggling to find their rightful place in society. In the twentieth century, numerous important leaders graduated from Howard: Thurgood Marshall, first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court; Andrew Young, Congressman from Georgia, US Ambassador to the United Nations, and Mayor of Atlanta; Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature; Zora Neale Hurston, author; Kamala Harris, recently elected US Senator from California, and many more. I believe the students there now, as they are expressing themselves, includes more individuals of this caliber.

About the protest, the New York Times wrote:
"The student backlash came after Dr. Frederick and more than 60 other leaders of historically black colleges and universities gathered for a meeting on Monday with top officials of the Trump administration, including the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos. As the meeting was getting underway, participants said, it was interrupted to invite them to an impromptu visit with President Trump in the Oval Office. 
"A photograph of the black leaders smiling and chatting with Mr. Trump around his desk was widely circulated and instantly became a flash point for students who believe the administration has been insensitive to the needs of black Americans." (source)
Students from other universities whose leaders participated in the White House event also protested, and the leaders offered a variety of excuses to explain their presence. The article continued: "The students saw the meetings as political cover for Mr. Trump, and some awkward details of his administration’s encounter with the black academic leaders only reinforced their skepticism."

I'm currently reading W.E.B DuBois's 1903 book The Souls of Black Folks. It's an interesting discussion, especially in the light of Betsy De Vos's clueless characterization of traditionally Black universities as an example of "choice."

From DuBois, himself a graduate of Harvard University, I read the following idealistic discussion of education in the South.
"Sadly did the Old South err in human education, despising the education of the masses, and niggardly in the support of colleges. Her ancient university foundations dwindled and withered under the foul breath of slavery; and even since the war they have fought a failing fight for life in the tainted air of social unrest and commercial selfishness, stunted by the death of criticism, and starving for lack of broadly cultured men. And if this is the white South's need and danger, how much heavier the danger and need of the freedmen's sons! how pressing here the need of broad ideals and true culture, the conservation of soul from sordid aims and petty passions!... Let us build, too, the Negro universities:— Fisk, whose foundation was ever broad; Howard, at the heart of the Nation; Atlanta at Atlanta, whose ideal of scholarship has been held above the temptation of numbers. Why not here, and perhaps elsewhere, plant deeply and for all time centres of learning and living, colleges that yearly would send into the life of the South a few white men and a few black men of broad culture, catholic tolerance, and trained ability, joining their hands to other hands, and giving to this squabble of the Races a decent and dignified peace?"(Kindle Locations 1034-1043).
 On the whole, I think our society has progressed in the last century, but I fear the current situation will set us back. I've learned much more from reading The Souls of Black Folks, but hesitate to go on at too much length.

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