On Racism

Steve posted a reply to my previous entry, and I think it merits a second entry:

…[I]f the Bullet article and quotations were correct, the students involved were stupid, insensitive and rude, which is probably not unique among first year students.  The question I’m asking is absent the offensive poster, would we be accusing the students of racism, or just poor judgment?

Short of the offensive poster, no I don’t think we would.  However, if we define an action as right or wrong (or, more to the point, racist or not racist) by whether or not anyone was aware of said action, then I think we undermine the idea of any absolute morality (take that as you will).  If the poster was racist – and I think it was, regardless of intention – then the apparent lack of an outcry prior to public exposure of the matter is of great concern to me, because it means either that no one was aware of its racist qualities, or that people tacitly agreed with the racist message that was implied.

Certainly first year students will make significant errors of judgment – I know that from first hand experience.  But then, the only people I hurt by my errors in that year were myself and, arguably, my family.  Regardless of who one hurts, however, I think that we can agree that a settling of accounts is necessary. 

Unfortunately these errors of judgment are now public and were particularly painful for  others.  Ignorance may be bliss, but that does not negate the racist nature of the material, nor the apparent lack of a negative response prior to the cleaning staff’s discovery.  The men involved are learning a hard but deserved lesson, and I don’t think any of them are exempt from criticism insofar as they tolerated the poster.

Ultimately it will come down to the following questions:  If the pain is unintentional, is the person who commits the action that causes the pain thereby not responsible?  For instance, are laws against involuntary manslaughter justifiable?  This is a broader question which I will leave you to decide.  However, I do believe there is room for the men involved – as well as the entire campus– to learn a very important lesson.  Racism is not merely an irregular and heinous act in our society, despite what we often think.  My reading, research, and personal exploration has led me to the conclusion that racism is deeply seated in most facets of life.  Blacks are not to be robbed of agency by this explantion, but a fair assessment must conclude that opportunities are both overtly and surreptitiously denied to blacks on a regular basis because of their skin color, and that the same can not be said of white people.

So no, we would not be accusing them of racism if the poster was unknown. Actually, we probably we wouldn’t even be calling them rude and prone to errors of judgment if the staff had not found the poster.  But it is known, and that is a good thing since it exposes the actions to public scrutiny, and I am hopeful it will create a constructive dialogue about issues of race that is made all the more desirable by the utter homogeneity of the student population. 

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