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THE charge of racial insensitivity that students have leveled against Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom is an unfortunate misinterpretation of his attitude toward race and ethnicity. But on the surface, criticisms of his treatment of racial issues in Historical Studies A-25 seem legitimate.
If a professor makes comments which appear racist to any degree, students--whether or not they belong to the offended minority--have a right to take issue with him. However, there is something dangerous about this particular case because none of Thernstrom's statements throughout the course warranted this extreme reaction. Throughout the semester, he fulfilled his roles as teacher and scholar by fairly presenting the full range of viewpoints on race relations in America.
The students accusing Thernstrom have not gone so far as to classify him as a racist. But the euphemism "racially insensitive" seems insufficient cause for the uproar; their actions indicate a feeling that he is more than merely insensitive. Insensitivity is a matter for discussion; racism is a matter for offense and complaint. Implications that someone is a racist should not be expressed in any situation without clear cause.
Yes, Thernstrom presented material which may have seemed surprising or even unappealing in its unconventionality. For example, he cited the fact that Black earnings between the 1940's and 1980's grew almost twice as fast as white earnings, contradicting widelyheld theories that race relations during this period improved slowly. But his observations, while controversial, added a new dimension to the subject matter.
STUDENTS have cited Thernstrom's attitude toward slavery and the Jim Crow system as indications of a biased and insensitive standpoint. One student in the course has said that Thernstrom "painted a benevolent picture of slavery." But this accusation is short-sighted and fails to capture the essence of Thernstrom's approach to slavery.
During one lecture, Thernstrom discussed recent scholarship that emphasized the positive ways slaves adjusted to their conditions, such as the development of a distinctive slave community and the growing importance of slave families. These seem more like statements of fact than insensitivity. Thernstrom never said that slavery was good; he merely spoke about different approaches scholars have taken to the subject. One may not agree with those viewpoints, but there is no reason why students should not be exposed to them.
At no time did Thernstrom downplay racism in American history. He described the Jim Crow system in plain terms that any new-comer to the subject could have understood. He stated clearly that is was an unfair and unequal system that failed to provide a solution to the problem of race relations.
It is possible that Thernstrom's attitude may have seemed careless at times, or condescending. However, his intent is what must be considered. His presentation of the material was fair and at no time favored one racial or ethnic group over another. One must act on the assumption that any apparent condescension was due to thoughtlessness or to the inherent awkwardness of the material itself.
At one time, Thernstrom made a facetious and careless remark when he attempted to explain why more working Black women were household heads than white women, and ascribed the statistic partly to the resentment unemployed men hold for their working wives. His wording offended many, and rightfully so. But to his credit, he spent at least half of the next lecture apologizing for the remark. It was the only remark he made that could have been reasonably interpreted as offensive, and one remark cannot provide the basis for accusations of racism or insensitivity.
THERNSTROM may have been thoughtless, careless, or foolish; he was not racially insensitive. Any treatment of racial or ethnic groups is difficult and awkward by nature because by setting a group apart one takes on the role of observer and judge. This role is not assumed by choice but prescribed by the subject matter. Ethnicity is a difficult subject to treat because people are afraid to confront the basic fact that people are different. Some of them are more advantaged than others by whatever accidents of circumstance place their ethnic group in their socioeconomic context. Any class on immigration and ethnicity must examine these differences.
Throughout the course, Thernstrom presented an optimistic outlook about the direction of ethnic and race relations in America. Perhaps not everyone agrees with this attitude. I did not; I've always had a more cynical approach to the future of American race relations. But this is a difference in attitude, not an offense. It is an issue to be discussed, not a crime to be reported. An optimistic outlook is not an indication of insensitivity.
Students' extreme reaction to Thernstrom's statements is disheartening. As a scholar and a teacher, Professor Thernstrom's job is not to restate worn generalizations about the evils of slavery, racism, and discrimination. His objective should be to bring a fresh viewpoint to the subject through his own interpretation of the facts. This is an objective that Thernstrom fulfilled in Historical Studies A-25.
One of the purposes of learning is to acquire new ideas, whether or not we agree with them. The point is not to relearn things we already know, or to be told only things we want to hear. As students, we should consider and weigh the presentation of the material with an open mind without being too hasty to find offense in what is, at its worst, thoughtlessness, or, at its best, innovation.
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