Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On the Anniversary of the Harpers Ferry Raid

Let me just say, off the top, I love John Brown. A devoted abolitionist willing to pay the ultimate price to bring slavery to its end? It's the stuff of fantasy.

...for people who think like I. For many other people who have lived in the U.S. since 1859, it's a reason to portray the man as "crazy" and "unstable." John Brown's contemporaries didn't think of him in these terms, according to James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me; instead, this portrayal arose largely to dismiss his efforts, his dedication, and because it is hard for people to imagine that a white man would give his life to destroy the slave system. I tell my students it's the same reason people try to make the Civil War about everything except slavery. White people were willing to tear their country apart and kill each other and "black people were at the heart of it?" Oh, no!

But I, as usual, digress. I admired Brown and didn't believe the characterizations even before I read Loewen's book. I wrote a paper about him during my M.A. program in defense of his sanity. My professor thought I was in denial :-)

As I've grown since, I am trying to think of careful ways to have this argument. If I try to "redeem" John Brown by insisting that he did not grapple with mental illness, am I just, from another perspective, furthering stereotypes about those that we label "crazy?" And so, I want to make it clear that my issue right now is not so much insisting that John Brown was "perfectly sane," but in the common invocation of mental illness to render people and their actions questionable, insignificant, or downright wrong.

Maybe Brown was an extremist in the sense that MLK, Jr. used the term in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Maybe Brown faced that choice MLK talked about, choosing what kind of extremist to be. "Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?" King asked. That Brown may have struggled, a century before, with just such a sentiment is evident in his words:
[H]ad I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.


I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
I will always love me some John Brown.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Quick Thoughts on Fisher v. UT

The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in Fisher v. UT.

I'm anxious.

Abigail Fisher claims she was rejected by UT because she was white. I think cases like this get at the heart of who is believed deserving or meritorious or entitled (a word usually used viciously against poor people of color, but Abigail Fisher certainly felt she was "entitled" to something).

Why do I say that? Because it doesn't particularly matter to plaintiffs in cases like this about any other source of perceived "unfair advantage." As Tim Wise noted some time ago,
[F]or every student of color who received even the slightest consideration from an affirmative action program in college, there are two whites who failed to meet normal qualification requirements at the same school, but who got in anyway because of parental influence, alumni status or because other favors were done.

But we don't hear about the unfairness of parental influence or legacy policies.

And, as noted in a brief from UT:
[Fisher] also was denied admission to the summer program, which offered provisional admission to some applicants who were denied admission to the fall class, subject to completing certain academic requirements over the summer. ... Although one African-American and four Hispanic applicants with lower combined AI/PAI scores than petitioner’s were offered admission to the 16 summer program, so were 42 Caucasian applicants with combined AI/PAI scores identical to or lower than petitioner’s. In addition, 168 African-American and Hispanic applicants in this pool who had combined AI/PAI scores identical to or higher than petitioner’s were denied admission to the summer program.

I doubt if Amy Fisher is worried about those 42 Caucasian applicants who got in because we are more likely to think they somehow deserved it. And what of the 168 students of color with scores identical or higher to hers who were denied admission? How is that explained?

No, it’s only an issue when a person of color is perceived to have gained something that rightfully should have gone to a white person. It is rooted in the belief that somewhere out there, there has to be a white person who is better qualified or more deserving or who “merits” more.

It’s the Jesse Helms “Hands” ad writ large.

Like Deborah Archer, I believe that,
Altough America has made substantial progress in race relations, there remains a systemic racial hierarchy that produces and perpetuates racial disparities in educational outcomes. Race-conscious admissions programs, like the one used by UT Austin, are designed to counter this systemic racism and create a vital pipeline to educational and professional opportunities for minority students. The proven success of these programs in increasing equal opportunity serves as compelling evidence of their value and counsels in favor of continuing them.

And, as a professor and a woman of color, it’s why I am anxious.
Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...