Friday, March 21, 2008

Racism Debate: Law School and the Nation

One day early this semester, an unsuspecting Con Law class sat awaiting the start of a lecture. The professor entered the classroom and began to rail at the class about “allegations” made that involved white students making harassing and crude racial slurs at a black student. As a class, we were punitively punished by an assignment that included reading an additional 35 pages on race relations (on top of our other 35 pages that, oh by the way, dealt with racial discrimination in the 1960’s). The class was left stunned and reeling because this was the first students had heard about racism on campus. We left class that day feeling dirty, confused, and like guilty white racists, for what we still do not know.
Rumors and speculation spread. One week before, we had returned from winter break several of our classmates were missing. Why you ask? Because Willamette grades on a mandatory curve and some failed and were asked not to return. A comment was made that 70% of the students that did not make it back where minority. We began to wonder, was this observation and the comments made the alleged racist comment?
The faculty at the school responded---very belatedly. 2 ½ months later, the faculty called a convocation about sensitivity and professionalism in the field of law. This convocation was scarcely attended and highly scripted by the faculty. No new ground was broken. Dialogue was stinted and people were afraid to truly speak their minds for fear of being labeled, or chastised again, for what we still do not know. In addition, the faculty stressed that while they held an investigation into the “alleged” incident, they had no hard proof that it occurred.
This seemed troubling to me. In law school, we are told to “stick to the facts” and “the worst thing you can do is make up facts.” We are told, “you are innocent until proven guilty” and yet, the faculty had no facts (because all were alleged) and no trial or grievance process had been held. But as a community, we were held suspect and scolded. Again, for what, we still do not know.
My observation is that “the community” as a school, and to extend community our country as a nation, and further extending to the global community, are afraid to take on the topic of racism in real and frank terms. For the white person, this is a very, very sticky and tricky topic. Often, caucasions are accused of being racist for making comments that are not intended to be a slur, but are unintentionally racist or construed to be racist. One need only look to Geraldine Ferraro and her comments in regards to Barak Obama to see how easily and how quickly comments spiral out of control (Comments by Ferraro).
Now, let us turn to comments made by the Rev. Wright that are at the forefront of the political arena. Wright subscribes to a tenant of faith called black liberation theology, which attempts to reconcile the struggle of black oppression with that of Jesus’ message of freedom. In theory, these are appropriate analogies. However, Mr. Wright has preached from his pulpit the following statements:
"The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color", and "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike laws and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people...God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”
Amazing that his comments are some how grounded in biblical principles, and yet Ms. Ferraro is a racist.
What has been happening in the law school, is nothing but a reflection of what is happening on a larger, national scale. It is time for this country, and this school, to acknowledge a few things.
1. Racism is alive and well. We cannot begin to think that it is not. However, it is time for understanding and frank conversation, without the fear of “racist” labels.
2. There is a difference between ignorance/misunderstanding and looking a fellow human in the eye and intentionally causing degragation and dehumanization. Racism is looking a fellow human in the eye and telling them implicitly or expressively that you believe that because of your race, you are superior and that the other person is beneath you.
3. It is time for those who understand racism (and discrimination) to begin to educate those who unintentionally offend. Let me explain.
Yesterday, a classmate of mine (whom I adore) and I were discussing a case. He said, “you know the case. The one where the woman opened the outer door and got herself raped.” Did he mean to be offensive? No. Was he even aware of the offensiveness of his comment? No. I looked at him and said, “Excuse me? What do you mean got herself raped? No women gets herself raped!” Which did two things: (1) gave me an opportunity to point out the blame game that is placed on rape victims and thus the discrimination inherent, and (2) allowed for the opportunity to educate as to the offensiveness of the comment. No offense or discrimination was intended, but it happened in effect.
This kind of dialouge is NEEDED in todays society. We need to hold each other accountable, we need to educate each other, and we need to be able to do so out of kindness, compassionate and WITHOUT labeling each other. Labeling one a racist is extremely devisive in nature and does little to forward the cause.
I cannot imagine the daily struggle that people of different races, ethniticities, and certain social and class status face. I had one brush with racism while visiting Memphis years ago. I walked into a Shoney’s and was the only white person in the restaurant. While not expressly refused service, I was ignored and not seated, while persons of color where seated who had walked in after me and served. No one would look me in the eyes and I began to get hostile looks. I was extremely uncomfortable and left when it became apparent that my presence was not wanted. It gave me a new found respect for the struggles facing some people everyday.
My point is that ignoring this problem, sweeping it under the rug, or in some cases inflating it all out of preportion, is dangerous. “The longer we listen to one another - with real attention - the more commonality we will find in all our lives. That is, if we are careful to exchange with one another life stories and not simply opinions.” - Barbara Deming; and
“The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.”-- Martin Luther King, Jr. No more apt words have ever been uttered in regards to how to solve the problem Listen, exchange (not accusations, but experiences), and stand in the times of challenge and controversy. These are things are nation has failed to do, and I am sorry to say, the faculty of my school have failed to do. The solution is simple: frank, head on conversation. No accusations, no labeling, no pointing fingers.

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