Refuting claims of institutional violence: Analyzing evidence of racism at the College

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 As President Mandel wrote in a recent letter, “ … we have a problem at Williams.” What I see is indeed problematic, for some groups have been claiming that violent practices of racism occur daily at our school. Two lines of evidence are given to support this claim: an article published on The Feminist Wire and a 2009 faculty report on retention of faculty of color. These are strong claims, and it’s incumbent on us to scrutinize the evidence for them. For if such violence exists, we must eliminate it, but if it doesn’t, then we needn’t address a nonexistent problem. 

The idea that violent institutionalized racism abounds in the College seems to have been taken for granted, and claims of oppression and victimhood are coming from groups ranging from CARE Now to the committee on the Asian American Studies concentration. But when one asks for the evidence of “violence,” one is told that even asking, “where is the violence?” is itself “violence.” This is a form of intimidation meant to shut down debate. Further, we are told to “accept grievances from professors of color without question.” 

As a scientist, I have learned not to accept assertions without evidence. But this intimidation method seems to have worked: Few dissenters want to risk opprobrium from aggrieved students. 

As evidence for “violent racism,” some professors have given examples of microaggressions such as “someone forgot my name,” “someone confused me with a student,” “someone wrote/said something rude,” “someone asked a culturally insensitive question,” “a car mechanic was rude.” Indeed, such events are commonplace, and I have encountered them often. However, I do not interpret them as racism against Latinas (after all, I have white male colleagues who encountered similar situations), much less construe them as “violence” or blaming the College for them. 

We are living in an era when people are taught to interpret everything as a microaggression instead of giving the benefit of the doubt. (see Lukianoff and Haidt’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure). The result is that one becomes conditioned to detect microaggressions everywhere. The question thus changes from “did racism take place?” to “how did racism manifest itself in this situation?” The problem is that unwarranted claims of oppression and victimization actually create new racial tensions, and are painting one of the most liberal, diverse and well-intentioned institutions as a cesspool of racism.

Further evidence used to support claims of widespread racism — which supposedly led to an exodus of faculty of color — is the resurfaced 2009 report investigating the retention of professors of color. But if you read the report and its 2014 supplement, you find no evidence of a “mass exodus” of faculty of color. Rather, the 2009 report actually shows no evidence for different rates of retention or tenure between white faculty and faculty of color. In fact, although there’s no statistically significant difference, faculty of color were retained and tenured at a slightly higher rate. The current exodus of faculty is also nonexistent: Few professors of color have left, and not because of racism but because they received better offers, retired or did not receive tenure.

Therefore, the data cited to support the ubiquity of violent racism fail to buttress that claim. In reality, the College has the increase in diversity of faculty and students as a top priority (we currently have high ethnic diversity with 39 percent of the students as minorities). Professors are required to attend workshops on bias avoidance, and pay special attention in recruiting and evaluating candidates of color. The College has been successful in increasing diversity in faculty of color despite their underrepresentation in PhDs (19 percent of professors are minorities). 

In the end, one can find evidence of violence only when the meaning of the word “violence” is changed. Violence (“cold”) is now taken to characterize words/acts that might offend someone, even if unintentionally. But, whose offense counts? Students upset with the destruction of their shrine to professors on leave, or the professor who, relocating materials after communicating with Campus Safety, has been cast as a racist villain? Or both? What is the threshold for deeming something “offensive”? 

This is another form of intimidation: Change the meaning of words to stifle speech you don’t like. But American courts have ruled that offensive words/actions, so long as they don’t inspire imminent harm, are not violations of the First Amendment’s “free speech.” There is a huge difference between offending somebody’s sentiments and punching them in the face. You can control how you react to speech, but you can’t will your face to not be hurt. 

I ask that we bring reason, deliberation and debate back to campus. After all, a main goal of higher education is to use reason, evidence and deliberation to justify (or alter) one’s beliefs. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence and, of course, diligent investigation. Crimes, including hate crimes or bias, need to be investigated and the results reported back to the community, never hidden from view. We need to start a dialogue and move beyond name-calling and unreasonable demands. One way to begin discourse is to endorse free expression, so that no speech is off limits, no matter how offensive some may consider it. For how can we have this discussion without free speech?

Luana Maroja, an associate professor of biology, has been at the College since 2010.