“I hope you have learned something from this,” Travis Bedraka, a former student in my local government class wrote to me. He was referencing the firestorm of reaction to my recent remarks in The New York Times on the divisive Republican use of race in New York’s 19th Congressional District election (“A College Administrator Told ‘The New York Times,’ Rap Is Not ‘Real Music.’ His President Called the Comment Disappointing,” The Chronicle, July 18). Though racism was entirely unintended, I now think my student reasonably read my commentary as racist. Travis also wrote: “I thought you were a great professor, but now I am ashamed of you.”
I answered: “I appreciate your letter. My students are my legacy, and I truly regret that I have let you down,” and included a copy of my formal apology to the campus community. But I woke up the next morning knowing that this was not enough. I needed to set out what I have learned so far, not to rationalize but to help me and others understand the lessons of this experience… and to determine next steps.
Lesson one: Acknowledge the pervasiveness of racism. For 50 years here as a teacher, dean, elected official, writer, consultant and commentator I have worked to advance democracy, fairness, inclusion, equity and justice. I now have directly experienced how racism plays out, not only in charters or voter-registration laws, but also in words and actions that, intended or not, create a sense of “us” and “them.”
I thought I was unbiased, and yet, I somehow said what I said. For me, and for other white people who think they are not racist or in other ways biased, unguarded comments may reveal deeply entrenched premises that lead to unintended invidious categorization of others.
Lesson two: Confront and condemn racism in politics. Our communities are increasingly diverse, and already deeply divided by partisanship and policy preferences. The intensity of these divisions threatens the very fabric of our democracy. Direct or indirect, racist arguments in any campaign anywhere intensify division, making civil discourse harder, even impossible. They are never acceptable.
Lesson three: Communicate directly and personally. Turn communication into action. I called Antonio Delgado, the Democratic candidate, the target of race-based attacks, apologized to him and asked for an in-person meeting. He graciously accepted and agreed. I also approached campus colleagues and met with the Benjamin Center staff to begin planning for dialogue about how divisive race- and ethnic-based politics can be overcome, and actions that are needed to replace it with politics that builds community.
Lesson four: Pay attention to what you are doing. Reputation grows from being morally and ethically centered, and using any skills you may have to build community. Reporters turn to expert professors for ideas that are informed, thoughtful and evidence-based. When this role is forgotten, community may be diminished, not built, and reputation irredeemably damaged.