Course Displayed Racial Insensitivity

On February 9, 1988, The Crimson ran an article, in which I was quoted, about a complaint made against Professor Stephan Thernstrom. The handling of information and chosen angle of the article ignored the issue. It was incorrect to assume that Thernstrom's remarks in lecture was the complete source of my complaint. Also, equally important issues I discussed, but were not addressed in the article, are: why were his remarks offensive, how they were interpreted, and what questions did they leave me to ask.

AS far as Professor Thernstrom is concerned, I believe that certain remarks he made in lecture were racially insensitive. Racial insensitivity is not something unique to him--it can be intended or unintended, avoidable or unavoidable. Insensitivity results from underlying attitudes or beliefs--unique to each of us--which have been formed by our own racial experiences. None of us claim to be fully cognizant of another's experience or what he or she may consider offensive.

Often this insensitivity is not intended. But that does not mean it does not exist, nor does it mean in all cases that it cannot be avoided, or corrected. Thus the question is what can be corrected--where the line should be drawn. I do not know what Professor Thernstrom's underlying attitudes, views or intentions are, nor have we discussed these issues. That is why I do not charge that he is a racist. But his attitudes and views may or may not be relevant to the racial insensitivity of his remarks.

The insensitivity lies in his phrasing of information in lecture and the implications of that phrasing. It also lies in the information he chooses to explore or omit and what I, a Black student, am left to interpret. For example, I am left to question his sensitivity when affirmative action is incompletely defined as "government enforcement of preferential treatment in hiring promotion and college admissions" in a book we had to read for his course that he edited. I am also left to question his sensitivity when I hear that Black men get feelings of inadequacy, beat their wives, and take off. This shows an incomplete and over-simplistic presentation of the information.

Finally, another example that left me questioning his sensitivity involved his treatment of the Jim Crow laws. In lecture, Thernstrom stated that Jim Crow laws were partially established for the protection of Blacks born after 1890 who had not been socialized by subordination, broken into the system, and were therefore more inclined to be uppity and lynched. Subordination is a subjective term. It could be argued that Blacks are still socialized by subordination, meaning that many do not have a positive opinion of themselves as Blacks and still seek to define themselves in white terms. This careless wording and often over-simplistic analysis omits much vital information.

I am also left to question his sensitivity after reading his letter to the editor in The Crimson on February 10, 1988. I find it interesting that he chose to assume that the newspaper presented the complete sentiments expressed by students interviewed. I also find it interesting that he never once says in the letter: "I apologize if what I said was misinterpreted." Never does he question himself.

Thernstrom has defined racial insensitivity in terms of his own limited understanding, measured himself within these terms, and found himself not guilty. But he never stepped outside of those terms, never attempted to understand the source of the complaint. Instead he has turned the whole situation full circle, proclaimed himself victim, and resorted to childish name-calling and irrational comparisons. "McCarthyism of the left" and "witch-hunt" are more than a little extreme. The complaint is not an attempt to spitefully purge society of outsiders, nor is it xenophobia, nor is it fear of something unseen. This is not politics--this is personal; it is his proclamations about Black life that I find incomplete and therefore inaccurate. This is an attempt to explain and to spread awareness of racial insensitivity so it may be avoided.

Thernstrom's insensitivity does not really involve freedom of speech. It lies with his delivery and approach of the material. As long as he has the right to speak his mind, we have the right to criticize, particularly in racial issues where some ignorance of minority life may be the root of controversy. But if freedom of speech is Thernstrom's defense (letter to the editors, February 10, 1988), that, too, can be questioned.

No one has silenced or censored him. But often, when questions are raised about a professor's handling of racial issues, he screams "academic freedom!" or "free speech!" This case is no exception. But academic freedom is a complex issue. Academic freedom is not truly equal, nor is freedom of speech, when the majority's freedom of expression is greater than that of the minority. Whites control the American power structure, thus, they can listen to discussions on apartheid or race relations without feeling threatened. But in similar discussions, Blacks cannot divorce their personal lives from politics or racial theory, because racist sentiment attempts to deny their daily lives and questions their validity as human beings.

THUS, the question becomes, "Does the right to speak include the right to threaten?" For example, by voluntarily listening to a speaker who says that Blacks are inferior, a white audience legitimizes that statement to themselves as an acceptable way of thinking--one detrimental to Black existence.

Furthermore, Professor Thernstrom may have the right to speak, but does equal freedom of expression truly exist when Harvard's Black academic circle--which could legitmately refute or criticize his statements--is so small? Defending oneself behind academic freedom does not come to grips with the real problem: minority concerns.

I am not judging Thernstrom's character; I am simply asking questions about his presentation of the material, and his defense for it.

BUTTING HEADS Last week, students in Professor Stephan Thernstrom's Core class, Historical Studies A-25, "The Peopling of America," said the professor displayed racial insensitivity in the course. Two students who took the course discuss the complaint.

Wendi Grantham is a junior living in Claverly Hall and a member of the Black Students Association.