Point of View Columns

Regarding the University of Missouri – What Change Really Looks Like

In the aftermath of the controversy and student dissent at the University of Missouri, there has been new found attention focused on protests by black students at college campuses around the country. From Missouri to Yale to Ithaca to Brown to Dartmouth to Harvard to Princeton and beyond, there spirit of righteous opposition has renewed with “change” as its goal. The question is – what does change look like in the 21st century?

Less than one hundred years ago, every one of the named schools had only a handful of lonely black pioneers in the role of students. The idea that there might be tens of thousands of qualified black men and women was so foreign to the considered view of most white Americans, that arguing in favor of black admissions was akin to arguing against the law of gravity or any other conventional wisdom of the era.

Over the next half century, the major battle was in the area of admissions. And that was certainly a battle, replete with the United States Army, the National Guard, FBI agents and an elected American governor of a state standing in the doorway of an American university in defiance of a federal order requiring immediate integration of that institution.

The sixties saw the first major influx of black Americans into the so-called mainstream higher education institutions. And as the demography of American campuses changed, so did the politics – the Black Power Movement, the Anti-War Movement and the Feminist Movement started as currents in intellectual inlets and became tidal waves of change from coast to coast.

Insofar as black students were concerned, the institutional change that was sought was straightforward and a game changer – more black students, more black faculty (many times the first), more black administrators (many times the first) and curriculum changes that addressed the needs, concerns and interests of black students – including African American studies and urban studies.

That these changes took place is obvious through even a cursory view of American academia today. What today’s black students must and should know is that these changes took place in the face of steadfast resistance from white administrators, faculty and students. This resistance was marked by institutional intransigence as well as violence that was enacted by law enforcement and white students as actors. What should never be forgotten is that these changes, which created a new normal on American campuses, occurred only through the recognition of the need for institutional change, and was not merely incidental and reactive change.

That is a very important lesson for today, because some of the protest and turmoil that is seen today is incidental and reactive. The shouted epithet, the anonymously placed noose, blackface parodies at fraternity and sorority houses – these are all offensive and reflective of the racist virus that still courses through the American bloodstream. These practices and actions should be protested but the prize has to be institutional change – otherwise these bigoted practices and Klan-inspired actions will continue in perpetuity.

That is why it is encouraging to see black and white students and academicians begin to examine the historical and financial origins of higher education in America. These examinations are supported and eloquently and usefully presented by MIT Professor Craig Steven Wilder in “Ebony and Ivy” which explicitly details how slavery helped American institutions of higher learning grow and prosper.

It is why inquiries at Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Alabama, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown and countless other institutions must result in their leadership re-examining their origins and coming to a fair and humane conclusion that at the minimum must include acknowledgement and confession to being complicit in the barbarous, bloodsoaked and tearstained aspects of American history.

If today’s students want to know what change looks like today, they need to look to the origins of these colleges and universities and seek a collective commitment to making a difference. Change will not be a simple name change or annual apology. Change will look like a new and different commitment to empowering a different, inclusive and progressive society.

Anything less will be unworthy of the memory of those whose pain and suffering served as the brick and mortar of American academia.

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Point of View Columns

Here’s What’s Wrong with Cornel West

It appears that ever since he did not get the prized inaugural tickets that his massive ego demanded, Cornel West has been determined to claw and gnaw at the presidency of Barack Obama. While he is free to permanently and totally disagree with any and all of the policies espoused by President Obama, it might be useful for Dr. West to remember that with freedom comes responsibility. And in that regard Cornel West has come up short – so to speak.

From the time that he took office Barack Obama has been subjected to ridicule and disrespect rarely seen in modern times. While it is true that John Adams was labeled a “hermaphrodite” and Abraham Lincoln was called a “baboon” and a “gorilla”, one would be hard pressed to recall another president who was called a “liar” from the floor of the House of Representatives by a member of the House of Representatives. President Obama’s wife, children, mother and mother-in-law have been fair game in the game that is being played by the right wing of the right wing.

Part of this has to do with the mud and dirt that one must endure when entering the political arena – just ask Bill Clinton or read about the full frontal attacks on Franklin D. “Rosenfeld” by the right wing of another era. But, as has been noted many times, there is a sharper and barbed edge to the arrows shot in the direction of Barack Obama and it is not being overly sensitive to suggest that this is because he is the first black President of the United States.

It is, therefore, odd and troubling that someone like Cornel West, a self-styled intellectual and self-anointed spokesman for oppressed black people, has taken it upon himself to castigate, demonize and trash the Obama legacy. One would think that there are enough white right wing zealots available to do that job – and then there are always the two Alans, Alan West and Alan Keys, if there is a need to add some color to the attack tag team.

As an accomplished academic, Cornel West has taught at Princeton and Harvard and is currently on the faculty at Union Theological Seminary. Although his multiple degrees do not include history or political science, it is fair to hold Dr. West to a higher standard of awareness than the man or woman on the street – wherever that street might be.

And by that standard it is incomprehensible that a presumably intelligent and educated man like Cornel West would engage in hurling playground invectives and insults at Barack Obama in the hope of…..what? Is he seeking to encourage thoughtful discourse and criticism regarding the policies of the Obama Administration? That is hard to believe when he labels the first black President of the United States “a lap dog for Wall Street”.

When he calls the man for whom over 90% of voting black Americans selected – twice – “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface”, exactly what point is he trying to get across? Aside from the very clear point of making sure that the name “Cornel West” stays in the media spotlight no matter how irrelevant he is becoming.

And in the middle of the distress and dismay following the despicable and damnable verdict in the George Zimmerman case did Dr. Cornel West offer some solace to the parents of Trayvon Martin. Did he try to put the case within the historical context of the seeming devaluation of black life by American institutions?

Of course not. Cornel West, a clear master of self-promotion, chose that very sad and somber moment to label President Obama “a Global George Zimmerman”, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean. In doing so Cornel West misdirected attention away from serious consideration of the Zimmerman trial and verdict to…..you guessed it, Cornel West. And one can be certain that this attention helps Cornel West as he charges $30,000 – $50,000 per speech as an advocate for poor black people. The irony is simultaneously inescapable and miserable.

The truth of the matter is that when the history of the Obama Administration is written decades from now, or next year, Cornel West will warrant something less than a footnote. He is a self-promoting and self-serving rhetorical provocateur who continues to do more harm than good every time he opens his mouth.

Perhaps one day Dr. West will come to grips with the fact that with freedom of speech comes some sort of responsibility for what one says. But don’t hold your breath.

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