Professor versus journalist: We were struck by Randall Kennedy's column in Friday's New York Times.
Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School. In a recent incident, pieces of black tape were affixed to his official portrait and to the portraits of other black professors at Harvard Law.
In his column, Kennedy offered his assessment of this situation. We thought the bulk of his reactions made sense, which virtually isn't allowed at this point in time.
He even typed a disallowed word. We join his column in progress:
KENNEDY (11/27/15): Last Thursday, on my way to teach contracts, I received an email from a student who alerted me to the defacement. I saw the taped photos, including my own, right before class. Since then I have been asked repeatedly how I feel about having been targeted by what some deem to be a racial hate crime. Questioners often seem to assume that I should feel deeply alarmed and hurt. I don’t.Kennedy makes these points in that passage:
The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined. Perhaps the defacer is part of the law school community. But maybe not. Perhaps the defacer is white. But maybe not. Perhaps the taping is meant to convey anti-black contempt or hatred for the African-American professors. But maybe it was meant to protest the perceived marginalization of black professors, or was a hoax meant to look like a racial insult in order to provoke a crisis, or was a rebuke to those who have recently been taping over the law school’s seal, which memorializes a family of slaveholders from colonial times. Some observers, bristling with certainty, insist that the message conveyed by the taping of the photographs is obvious. To me it is puzzling.
Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers.
First, he says he doesn't "feel deeply alarmed and hurt" by the piece of tape which was placed on his portrait.
It isn't entirely clear why he says this. But he notes that the motive for the act hasn't yet been determined. It could even be a "hoax," he says, using a word whose obliteration has sometimes made us liberals seem dumb in recent years, when a fair number of these incidents have turned out to be hoaxes.
(Conservatives hear about the hoaxes. We liberals are kept in the dark. Did you ever see the resolution to the "Klan at Oberlin" story? No you didn't, but many conservatives did.)
Kennedy complains about those who "bristle with certainty" about what this gesture must surely mean. He says that, even if this does turn out to be "a racist gesture," it may not represent the outlook of anyone except the lone pilgrim who engaged in the act.
To us, these assessments make obvious sense. For a reaction which seems to make less sense, consider today's piece by Steven Petrow at the Atlantic concerning events at Duke.
According to his identity tag at the Atlantic, Petrow is a columnist for the Washington Post and USA Today. (According to the leading authority, he's "an American journalist and author who writes frequently on modern-day etiquette.") He's also a 58-year-old Duke grad who serves on the board of the Duke Alumni Association.
Petrow writes about a recent visit to Duke in connection with a series of racial incidents. On a journalistic and human basis, we think one part of this passage tilts toward the appalling:
PETROW (11/30/15): As an alumnus, and a member of the Duke Alumni Association board of directors, I’d been following the highly disturbing series of events on campus: In April, an undergraduate hung a noose from a tree near the student union; in October, a Black Lives Matter poster was defaced with the “N” word; students of Asian ancestry have been repeatedly ridiculed and stereotyped. Then, in November, while Jack Donahue slept in his dorm, he told me, an individual entered and scrawled on a corridor wall with a black sharpie: “Death to all fags @Jack.” Donahue is gay.We can't evaluate each of those incidents. That said, we were struck by Petrow's treatment of the noose incident from last April. Here's why:
The noose was found in the tree on April 1. Petrow links to this report in the Duke Chronicle, a report which was published that very day, before anyone had any idea who had done this or why.
By April 2, the Duke administration knew who had hung the noose. On May 1, the administration announced the findings of its investigation into the incident. Here's the summary, as reported by Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed:
JASCHIK (5/4/15): Duke University announced Friday that the student who left a noose on a tree in April, unsettling the campus, had done so out of "ignorance and bad judgment." While the student has received a sanction from the university, Duke will allow the student to return next semester.This report from Duke Today includes the student's letter of apology, with his full explanation.
The university also published an apology from the student (whose name has not been revealed). The apology has suggested to some on campus that the student is from outside the United States. Duke declined to comment on the background of the student. However, sources with knowledge of the situation said that the person in question was indeed an international student.
Was the student in question a foreign student who didn't understand the symbolism of a noose in the American South? We can't tell you that, although that seems to be the judgment reached by the Duke administration and perhaps by law enforcement.
That said, the resolution of the case got little attention in the national press. Here's the amazing part:
In his piece in the Atlantic, there is no sign that Petrow is aware of the way the matter was resolved. It's stunning to think that he would link to the April 1 Duke Chronicle piece, written when no one knew squat about what had occurred, but not to this May 1 Duke Chronicle piece, which presented more information.
Petrow is a national journalist. He's also connected at Duke. Is it possible that he actually doesn't know how this matter was resolved?
We can't answer that question. But based upon his piece at Atlantic, it seems that some students at Duke are very upset by the incidents to which he refers. It's stunning to think that he wouldn't present full information about the incident which probably got the most national attention.
The noose incident wasn't a "hoax." Based upon the limited reporting its resolution attracted, it seems it may have involved a misunderstanding on the part of a foreign student, rather than an act of racial animus. (Would you understand the cultural meanings of various symbols in Korea or Japan?)
We went through many comments to Petrow's piece. None of the commenters seemed to know what the administration seems to have judged. At times like these, a certain preference for upset and bedlam may sometimes exist.
Professor Kennedy is urging calm reflection. Very few others are. We think the Atlantic should be embarrassed by the piece it chose to run. We've also thought this on several occasions:
Certain adults seem to enjoy seeing decent young people upset.