Sunday, December 23, 2012

"What were you trying to accomplish?"

Recently I had an interesting conversation with a white, male friend who had just finished reading my young adult novel, The R Word, which tells the story of a very sheltered, white teenager named Rachel.   Rachel lives in a mostly segregated suburb and, like lots of us white folk, has never seriously thought about race or considered the impact of racism.  She, again like lots of us white folk, believes that we live in a "post racial" society and that it is best to be colorblind. Through a series of fortunate events, Rachel joins an after-school club that meets in the nearby city and, for the first time, makes friends with teens of color.  She begins to see the world through their perspective, and comes to realize her own white privilege and her family's aversive racism.

Ok, back to my friend.  He liked the novel, and complimented me on its writing style.  Then he said, "There's one thing I'm wondering about.  What were you trying to accomplish in writing this book?"

I have to admit I was surprised, because I thought the book's forward and discussion questions made that pretty clear.  I responded, "Isn't it obvious?"

"Not to me," he said, his expression open and smiling, "because I've never really thought about any of this before."

That's the point.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

We Like the Safe Ones

I read an interesting opinion piece this morning titled, "It's time to free Rosa Parks from the bus."  Check it out here:

The author describes a Rosa Parks very different from the fatigued elderly woman that many white school children learn about.  The way I learned it, Mrs. Parks was just too tired to move to the back of the bus that fateful day.  Her determination to stay put unintentionally sparked the Civil Rights Movement. Thinking about it now, that's a pretty ridiculous scenario.  Why was I taught it that way?  Because it makes Rosa Parks safe.  She didn't mean any harm.  She wasn't militant, and certainly wasn't violent.  She was just tired. Rosa Parks was a black woman that white people could accept without fear.  For this same reason I never learned about Malcolm X, only about the non-violent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King, with his non-violent resistance, was safe in a way that Malcolm X wasn't.

There's a theory in critical race studies called "interest convergence." It claims that whites will only move toward racial equality when it benefits us in some way.  As soon as we have to give up a position of dominance, according to this theory, many whites will back off and leave social justice for someone else to worry about.  I think this theory applies to who gets designated as a "hero" of the Civil Rights Movement and who gets left out of the story in many circles. As a white, it's in my best interest to recognize, and even to applaud those activists who are "safe" because I can now proclaim myself as not-racist without the uncomfortable experience of facing the anger bred by centuries of oppression.  Ah, I feel so much better about myself now.  

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Whiteness as Property

One of my kids said something to me a while back that left me, for once, at a loss for words.  I can't remember what, exactly, we were talking about.  Maybe it was my book, The R Word, or maybe it was my dissertation research on what suburban high school students think and say about race as they read "multicultural literature" in class.  It doesn't matter.

Here's what my offspring said: "Mom, I'm not trying to be racist, but I'm glad I was born white." When I asked why, there was no clear answer, other than, "I just am." Previously, my kids have said things like, "I'm glad we're Italian," but that was usually related to food. This was something different. How could I respond?  After all, we want our kids to feel good about who they are. Self-esteem is important, we all know that. We should all feel happy with who we are. I mumbled something so ineffectual that I can't even recall what it was, and let it go at that.

Although I failed to fully explore this comment, I didn't stop wondering what was beneath it. This was not about self-esteem. In retrospect, I think this young, white person was sensing something that critical race theorists have been writing about for decades, and that is the value of whiteness.  From the inception of our nation, whiteness has been an important form of property. Bell points out that the framers of the constitution understood the tension between property rights and individual rights, and allowed slavery to continue based on the idea that African American slaves were property and therefore not eligible to receive basic human rights. Ladson-Billings and Tate explain that from the beginning, our society has linked human rights with property rights.  They argue that even today, in a society that values each person's individual civil rights, the reality is that social benefits still go to property owners. One example of this is education; the children of property owners still go to better schools and receive the intellectual property of a better education.

Even whites who are not affluent gain something from their whiteness. First, because working class and poor neighborhoods are often racially segregated, working class and poor whites often have access to higher quality housing and better schools than people of color of the same income level.  They may not own a house, but they do own the property of their whiteness which, whether they know it or not, continues to work for them.  Second -- and this is something hard to admit, but if I'm honest I have to consider that this is what was beneath my child's comment – whites of all economic backgrounds have always owned the property of racial superiority. Bell explains that as far back as the 1660s, working class whites did not oppose slavery, even though they owned no slaves.  The existence of slavery may not have benefited them directly, but it did provide them with something of value -- they could tell themselves that no matter how difficult their lives were, at least they weren't black.  So, even though they owned no property, their whiteness functioned as a type of social and emotional property for them.

I don't know where this leaves me as a parent.  I'm glad my child felt the freedom to be honest. I wish I had had the presence of mind to unpack those words, "I'm glad I was born white" more thoughtfully at the time, but of course it's never too late for honest conversations about race with our children and with each other.


Bell, D. (2000). Property rights in whiteness: Their legal legacy, their economic costs. In R. Delgado & J. Stefancic (Eds.), Critical race theory: The cutting edge (71-79).  Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Lanson-Billings, G. & Tate, W.F. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), 47-68. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Celebrating Diversity" in the Suburbs

I heard an interesting story the other day. Someone I know is volunteering at an elementary school out here in the suburbs. We'll call her "Volly," and we'll call the school "Still White but Not as White as the Other Schools in the Area" (Stillwhite for short). Here's the school's demographic stats:

EthnicityThis SchoolState Average
 White, not Hispanic71%73%
 Black, not Hispanic24%16%
 Asian/Pacific Islander3%3%

The teachers, as usual in the suburbs, are almost exclusively white.

So here's what Volly told me. When asked to produce his homework, a Vietnamese student who is just learning English said, "My mother ate dinner on it." Not quite understanding, the teacher asked him to repeat himself, and the boy again stated that his mother had eaten dinner on his homework. You and I can probably figure out pretty quickly that the homework had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and had gotten soiled with food. It happens. I once got pizza stains on my students' papers. My husband once spilled a 32 oz. soda into my pocketbook. A good friend knocked a glass of water onto her new laptop, wreaking havoc with her motherboard for years to come. And so on.

Anyway, what was the teacher's response? She thought it was funny, but not in the "isn't that cute!" condescending but not badly intentioned kind of way that adults often adopt toward children. No, this teacher proceeded to retell the story to the other teachers (who I presume were all white but I'm not a hundred percent sure) in that bastion of professionalism known as the teachers' lounge. What followed was, according to Volly, a sickening wave of ridiculing  the student by the other teachers, mimicking his speech in that way that people make fun of Asian languages (you know what I mean), and overall disrespecting the student. There were no administrators present, although I'm not sure if that would have made a difference (I hope it would have). Although I wasn't there, I trust Volly's judgment and she was thoroughly disgusted by the scene.

Okay, so some people are idiots, right? This is just one of those stories of individual prejudice that we all come across once in a while. Our society isn't perfect, but it's much better than it used to be, right?  The problem here is that these people are teachers who impact the lives of their students every day. Do you think they can treat children with respect outwardly when they think of them which such disrespect inwardly? I don't. And I bet if you asked, these teachers would say that they're colorblind when it comes to their students' racial backgrounds.

But the story doesn't end there.  It happened that Volly was present during a meeting in which this same teacher and some others discussed the students' recent scores on a reading test.  The printout of the scores showed each student's name and score.  This same teacher (I can't trust myself to make up a name for her) had written her own comments next to each student's name, presumably to help her understand her students' academic abilities better.  They read: "on level," "almost there," and "never gonna make it." Hmm.  This, class, is a textbook example of how teacher expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you know a student is "never gonna make it," why bother trying?  I don't know what the racial backgrounds of the students in the never gonna make it category are. But I do know that 24% of Stillwhite's students are eligible for reduced or free lunch, and that these students live in the "Section 8" housing in this largely segregated district. I also know that by fifth grade the black students score an average of 33% lower than the white students on state standardized tests. It doesn't take much to do the math as to what category most of the lower achieving, "never gonna make it" students comprise. And here's the important thing: teachers' positions of power in the classroom (and therefore in society) move scenarios like this beyond the realm of individual prejudice into that of institutional racism.

Way to celebrate diversity in the schools, folks.  I can barely wait till Cinco de Mayo.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Little More Confusion

Just to add to the confusion over the definitions of race and ethnicity that I wrote about in my last post, here's an update from the U.S. Census Bureau:

First, they are proposing to drop the word "Negro" in favor of "black" or "African American." Now there's another question -- which is it? Do they mean the same thing? Is one term more acceptable than the other? During some recent research I found that for some people (and not all of them were white) there was confusion over racial descriptors. Some people thought "black" was actually a racial slur, and that they'd be accused of racism if they said it. They thought it was unfair that African Americans get to use the term "white," but whites, in their view, don't get to use the term "black." They saw this as just one indication of the way that whites are now victimized by "some people" who are "just too sensitive" and are using past racism as an excuse to advance unfairly. Funny what's under the surface - all we were talking about was the word "black," and a whole lot of anger bubbled up.

Anyway, back to the Census Bureau. They also want to add Hispanic as a category separate from black or white. This would make it the equivalent of a race. Is it? Or is it an ethnicity? That would mean that anyone who comes from a Spanish speaking country (because that's what "Hispanic" means) would not be considered white or black, no matter what they look like. Very messy stuff here.

Lastly, they want to add an opportunity for people to write in a racial category in order, they say, to "allow Middle Easterners and Arabs to specifically identify themselves." Hmm. So people who were, up until this point, considered white, would no longer be considered white. Not sure what's behind that.

All of this points to the fluidity of racial categories. With the stroke of a pen, someone's race can be changed. Weird, right? Does this mean that race doesn't matter? If racial categories can be changed so easily, what is the point of having them? Maybe we should just stop keeping track. Well, the problem with that is that in the U.S. race has always mattered and it still matters. Sadly, race has been a way to exclude people and we are still living with the legacy of that discrimination. Ignoring race is not the answer.

Perhaps the changes in the census give an opportunity for some to claim their national heritage with pride, and not to be lumped in with a group that they do not identify with. No problem there. But does it also means that fewer and fewer people are being allowed into the "white" category? And will this be cause for panic for some members of the historical majority as they see themselves slip into minority position? If these changes are made, will there be backlash of some kind? Time will tell, but I hope it doesn't tell with a bang.

FYI -- here's how another governmental agency, The National Center for Education Statistics, categorizes race:

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Just Can't Say the Word

Like most teachers, at this time of year I'm watching the calendar with growing trepidation.  Soon and very soon it will be time to head back to school.  So, as I usually do in the beginning of August, I'm preparing my courses for the start of fall classes, and for the last several days I've been deeply immersed in the newest edition of my educational technology textbook. The authors (all five are white and four of the five are male) include a section on the importance of knowing who your students are in terms of gender, SES, culture and "ethnicity."  They define ethnicity as "the way individuals identify themselves with the nation from which they or their ancestors came" (72).* So far, so good,  Then they go on to list the following as "ethnic" groups that exist in the U.S.: "African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, and various immigrant groups, including Italian, Polish, Israeli, Indian, and many others."

Huh? Do you notice something missing here?  What about the category of race? It's gone from the list, and in its place is a conflation of race and ethnicity.  So both Asian American and Indian are listed as ethnicities, even though Indians are from South Asia.  Hispanic is listed as an ethnicity, even though the term "Hispanic" means Spanish-speaking, and comprises people from many different nations (i.e., different ethnicities). And is African American a race, or an ethnicity, or both? And if you're white but no longer identify with a past European ethnicity, well, sorry, you didn't make the list at all.

What's going on here?  By ignoring the category of race, are these authors saying that it does not exist? Or are they somehow afraid to use the word?

This is not the first time I've witnessed this kind of confusion and avoidance by whites.  I've heard the term "ethnicity" used when the speaker meant "race" lots of times (just as I've witnessed whites of varying ages afraid to use the word "black," thinking that it's a racial slur).  For some reason the word ethnicity has a softer connotation for some.  Do these folks subliminally think that pointing out race in any way makes one racist? Do they think that the only way to ensure racial equity, or to avoid being called "the R word" is to be colorblind?

Granted, the authors are not race scholars, but they are scholars and their text will be used in many teacher prep courses. By failing to see race as a category different from ethnicity they reinforce to their readers that it's not okay to notice race.  If we can't notice race, we can't notice racism, especially on the structural or institutional levels.  If we can't notice racism, we can't do anything about it.

*Newby, T.J., Stepich, D.A., Lehman, J.D., & Russell, J.D. (2011).  Educational
              technology  for teaching and learning (4th ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Owning Our Past

I just got back from a fabulous vacation in The Netherlands, where I visited my longtime friend, Judy Mensch.  Judy and I have been friends for 39 years!  We like to say that we met in a playpen when we were both two years old.  (We like to say it, but it isn't true.)  Anyway, making the trip even more fun was the fact that I got to take my daughter, Meredith, with me.

Zaanse Schans, Zaandam (The Windmill Park)

A highlight of the trip was our visit to the Corrie Ten Boom Museum in Haarlem, where Judy volunteers as a tour guide.  Some of you may know the story of the Ten Boom family from the book or movie, The Hiding Place.  The Ten Booms were a Christian family who felt compelled to live their faith by helping Jews to escape the Nazis during WW II.  Here's a link if you want to find out more about their story -- Virtual tour of Ten Boom Museum.

The hiding place, in Corrie's bedroom
The Ten Boom family worked with the Dutch resistance to house and feed hundreds of Jewish people, ultimately helping them escape to safety. They constructed a place for people to hide, should the Nazis find out what they were doing.  If you look closely you'll see three plaques inside this hiding place, presented to the Ten Boom Museum by the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary about 30 years after the end of the war.  The plaques say the following in German, Dutch, and English:

"May this plaque be an expression of our shame and grief over the serious crime that our German people committed against Holland during World War II. May it also be a token of love and gratitude to the Dutch people who assisted the Jews while they were being persecuted, and who responded to the injustices of our German nation by showing goodness to God's Chosen People.  God bless Holland!"

Of all the things we saw on that tour, I found this to be the most poignant.  The humility with which this group of people admitted responsibility and asked forgiveness touched me, and because I study race in the U.S., I couldn't help but think about our own situation regarding past racism and its present legacy. Sadly, much of the discourse I and others who study race have heard from whites of various ages and backgrounds sounds more like this:

"I never enslaved anyone, so I'm not to blame."
"That all happened a long time ago, so why do we have to keep talking about it?"
"Talking about it just makes it worse.  We need to move on."
"My ancestors worked hard to get to where we are today, and no one is stopping others from doing the same."

And, most incredibly:

"Whites are victims of racism, too. I know someone who didn't get a job/scholarship/whatever because a black person got it instead."

Am I saying that all Europeans have adopted the stance expressed by the Evangelical Sisterhood on this plaque, or that all Dutch people actively resisted the Nazis the way the Ten Boom family did?  Of course not.  I was only in Europe for 10 days, and since I'm not a Holocaust scholar I would never presume to make judgments of that nature. And, of course, although research shows that the white discourses mentioned above are quite prevalent, there were and continue to be many white allies who work for racial justice in our country.  I hope that I am one of them.  My point is that I think we whites can learn something from the humility behind the words of this plaque.  How do we respond when we are confronted with the past and present injustices of our white dominated nation?  As I tell my students, it's not about guilt or blame, but it is about ownership and responsibility.  We don't live in a time vacuum.  Our present is directly linked to our past, and ignoring past and present injustice in our own country doesn't make any more sense than it would in Europe or anywhere else.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

It's Not About Race, Part III

Ok, this is not about Rutgers (even though my blood is boiling at the way South Jersey politicians are trying to sneak in their ill-conceived merger plan under the guise of a "joint governing board" between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan.  Do they think we're idiots? Don't answer that.)

It's just that sometimes I feel as if ideas, like wolves, travel in packs.  You hear something somewhere, and then the next day you hear it again, and the day after that, one more time.  Almost like the thought, or theory, or opinion is roaming around the psychic universe, just waiting to attach itself to your consciousness like a magnet to a refrigerator door.  So that's what happened to me for the past little while with the phrase, "It's not about race."  It seems like every time I turn around someone is telling me that something is not about race.  A very famous novel, known as a "classic" that is supposedly anti-racist, turns out, in one person's opinion, to be not about race after all.  Discrimination, it turns out, is not about race, it's about culture, or class, or geography.  Young people of color no longer find race to be an important part of their identity. Instead, they think about age or culture. The interesting thing is that educated, progressive individuals are among those making these pronouncements.

Well, I'm here to say that in my opinion, it is about race.  Discrimination is not ONLY about race, but to separate race from social class in this country just doesn't work, since past individual and institutional racism played a large role in solidifying our current inequitable class system.  We all know that white people were allowed to advance and accumulate capital, in the form of education and real estate, for example, at the expense of people of color.  For whites, it was ALL about race -- so much so that the Supreme Court felt it necessary to rule on who was allowed to be white and who wasn't. Funny that now so many whites want to declare that race is no longer important.

Yes, there are poor white people, too.  Robin J. DiAngelo, a university professor, writes about growing up poor and white and thinking that even though she knew she was poor, "I also knew that I was not Black. We were at the lower rungs of society, but there was always someone on the periphery, just below us" (53).  And while scholar Annette Lareau, whose study of the impact of social class on child rearing practices is described in the book, Unequal Childhoods, claims that "seeing selected aspects of family life as differentiated by social class is simply a better way to understand the reality of American family life" (236), she also notes the role race plays in the lives of families of the same economic class. Take, for example, the Brindle family.  Led by a single mother who has struggled with substance abuse, the family can barely make ends meet and depends on public assistance. They are as poor as the McAllisters, one of the black families in Lareau's study.  Yet, there is a difference. While the McAllisters live in a drug infested housing project populated by African Americans, the Brindles "benefit from the racial segregation that exists in city housing" (87).  In other words, they live in a safer,  more economically integrated white neighborhood that has better access to public services, including schools.  They may be poor, but their whiteness works for them to keep them from the bottom rung of society.  The Brindles can know in their hearts that it could be worse -- at least they aren't black.

So when I hear from other whites that "it's not about race" I have to wonder what's going on here.  Denying the salience of race in American life get us whites off the hook, doesn't it? It allows us to continue along our merry way, shunning affirmative action initiatives as "reverse discrimination" and claiming ourselves as the victims of racism whenever we lose out on a benefit we thought that we deserved.  It's a great racket, really, brilliant if I may say so.  Spend centuries oppressing anyone who is not in your elite skin color club, restricting their resources to the degree that they can't afford membership even if it were offered to them.  Then change the rules and declare that membership is open to all who can afford it.  It's not our fault if they don't work hard enough to join.  It's not about race, you see.


DiAngelo, Robin J. "My Class Didn't Trump My Race: Using Oppression to Face Privilege." Multicultural Perspectives 8.1 (2006): 52-56.

Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Beauty and the Beast

What does it mean to be beautiful? I’m reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for probably the fourth or fifth time.  Set in the 1940s, the story centers on the internalization of white beauty standards by African American females.  One girl in particular, Pecola, has bought into the idea that she is ugly, partly because of the darkness of her skin and partly because of her dysfunctional family. She tries to make herself invisible, but she just can’t get her eyes to disappear, so she prays every night that her eyes would turn blue.  Eventually, Pecola’s internalization of whiteness as the standard of beauty is so damaging that it drives her to insanity. Morrison’s text is a devastating indictment of how the idea of beauty combines with the beast of racism to psychologically damage people of color.

During approximately the same time setting as The Bluest Eye, African Americans were fighting for the right to an integrated public school system. Civil Rights leaders used evidence from the now famous “doll experiments” by the Clarks that asked African American children to choose between a white and black baby doll.  Many of the children preferred the white doll and cried or ran from the room when the experimenter asked them to “show me the doll that looks like you.”  Although people today critique these studies, arguing that the Clarks intentionally manipulated their results through the order of the questions, the Clarks’ findings that African American children internalized whiteness as good and blackness as bad helped to precipitate the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decisions that finally made racial segregation in public education illegal. Other people have conducted similar studies with varied results, as recently shown on Anderson Cooper’s 360 report on kids and race, which you can check out here -- AC360 Study.

Fast forward to 2012 and the Trayvon Martin killing.  Was George Zimmerman racist or wasn’t he? Does he deserve to be tried and convicted of murder, or was he acting in self-defense? And what does this have to do with the internalization of whiteness as the standard of beauty and goodness?  Of course I don’t know this for a fact, but I think it’s entirely possible that George Zimmerman is not a racist in the strict, Archie Bunker sense of the word.  I bet he believes in equal rights. I bet he even has African American friends. When others stick up for him and claim he’s not racist, I bet they are sincere.  George Zimmerman may be no more racist than I am.  Why, then, did he choose to follow Trayvon Martin that night? Why did he assume that the African American youth was up to no good? Because, like most of us, George Zimmerman has probably internalized the standard that white is good and black is bad without even realizing it. These racist ideas are so woven into our white-dominated culture that it would be hard not to internalize them.  Sadly, not much has changed since Morrison wrote her Nobel prize winning novel – ‘tis still beauty, whether inner or outer, that feeds the beast.  

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"The Talk"

By now I'm sure you've heard about the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager who was killed because of racial profiling.  Friends who know that I study and blog about race have been sending me various articles, maybe wondering why I haven't commented so far.  To be honest, I hesitate to jump into the conversation because I don't want to be just one more white person appropriating the suffering of African Americans.  Plus, what is there to say that hasn't already been said?  If this doesn't convince people that race still matters in America and that, for some, race is still a matter of life and death, well, there's nothing I can say or do to convince them otherwise.

So, I'll offer this reflection by Joyce B. from the website "RacismReview" for your consideration. In "How Does it Feel to be a Problem? A Reflection on Trayvon Martin,"  the author, the mother of a teenage African American male, describes the need to do something that I, as the mother of three white males, have never had to do.  A friend of mine who is African American once called this "the talk" -- spelling out for the young man how to behave to avoid the very situation that Trayvon Martin found himself in on the night that he was killed.

And yes, I know that as of this posting all of the facts of the case have yet to come to light. Martin's parents claim that it was their son's voice pleading for help on the 911 recording, while Zimmerman claims that the voice was his and that he fired in self-defense.  But one thing we do know for sure is that Trayvon Martin was unarmed and had every right to be in that gated community that night. We also know that George Zimmerman followed him against the direction of the 911 dispatcher. Had Zimmerman listened to the dispatcher and not allowed Trayvon's race to convince him that the teenager was up to no good, none of this would have happened.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Maybe it IS about race...

Last week I posted about the battle that Rutgers University’s Camden branch, where I am a PhD candidate, is fighting for its existence.  New Jersey’s governor and other politicians have endorsed a plan (and I use that word loosely, because “plan” is defined as “a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something” and so far no details exist, only vague promises and grandiose statements) that would change the structure of public higher education in New Jersey.  This proposal would give Rutgers New Brunswick a medical school in exchange for our Camden campus, which would be taken over by Rowan University.  Many, many people have explained why this is a bad idea both educationally and fiscally for New Jersey residents and for people like me who cross the river to attend Rutgers.  

In that post I implied that I was taking a break from my usual topic of race to explain the Rutgers crisis.  What does this have to do with race? I asked.  Probably nothing, I said.  I hope nothing.  After further consideration, I take it back. Some of the stuff about Rutgers/Camden being floated out there contains veiled references to race.

Most obvious and offensive are the statements made by anonymous commenters to online articles/blogs about the takeover. One of these called us a “ghetto no-nothing [sic] campus.”  It’s not hard to see the reference to race there – “ghetto” is code for “unsafe, run-down place where a lot a black people live.”  Another person on another site commented, “Camden is not the real Rutgers anyway.”  What does that mean?  What makes a campus, or a place, “real”?  We have real classrooms, a real library, a real gym, real faculty and real students.  Reminds me of a certain politician’s statement about the “real” America.  Where is the real America, and is Camden not a part of it? Is “real” code for “white”? 

Of course, I admit that these are only a few random comments made by a few ignorant individuals.   More troubling is what’s being said about Rutgers/Camden by people who should know better. For example, last week the folks who wrote the proposal suggesting the takeover deal testified before New Jersey’s Senate Higher Education Committee.  Their leader, Sol Barer, who is a member of Rutgers Board of Trustees, used some very interesting language in referring to Rutgers/Camden.  While he referred to Rutgers/Newark as a “sister” campus to New Brunswick, he called us a “satellite” campus.  A satellite?  Nowhere on any of Rutgers’ websites or accreditation documents are we referred to as a satellite.  We are a branch of Rutgers University, period, and you would think that a member of our own Board of Trustees would know that.  But Mr. Barer’s description of us clearly places us in the same category of “not real” as the anonymous commenter noted above.  I know, Mr. Barer said nothing about race, but his word choice was meant to marginalize us as surely as if he had called us a ghetto.  A few days later, during an interview on WHYY, George Norcross, who has much to gain if the takeover becomes a reality, said that he attended Rutgers/Camden briefly 35 years ago, and that the campus hadn’t changed at all since then.  This, of course, is a flat out lie.  We have new and renovated buildings galore, but Mr. Norcross’s statement again evokes images of a “ghetto campus,” not a difficult accomplishment since that’s what some people visualize as soon as they hear the word “Camden” anyway. 

One more thing.  Over the last few weeks New Jersey Senator Steve Sweeney, who is in favor of the takeover, has referred to protesting Rutgers students and faculty, led by Wendell Pritchett, our African American Chancellor, as a “lynch mob.”  Ok, everyone slips up sometimes, but when given the opportunity to rephrase, Sweeney defiantly declared that he stood by his comment. So on the one hand we’re a run down ghetto that hasn’t changed in 35 years, but on the other hand we’re a lynch mob.  Talk about role reversal.  Many have suggested that Sweeney’s comment was racially insensitive.  I suggest something deeper.  Sweeney unknowingly illustrates a common discourse employed by some whites and noted by race scholars – the “whites as victim” motif.  That’s when whites claim that because of programs like affirmative action they are the new victims of discrimination. It’s a very commonly held argument. Sweeney, the white person, casts himself as the victim of a lynch mob led by the African American Chancellor of our campus.  Of course, I know that Sweeney did not intend to invoke racial images of any kind with his outrageous statement.  He only meant to question the motives and insult the intelligence of the entire Rutgers/Camden population.  Still, his choice of words bears scrutiny for its subliminal message about race.

Maybe this is all a stretch. Maybe I am reading racism into a situation that has nothing to do with race. I don’t know. I do know that when I mention that I go to school in Camden, eyebrows attached to white faces rise and an unsaid something passes between me and that person.  It’s the same unsaid something that underlies this whole merger/takeover debate, and the same unsaid something that positions Camden as an expendable part of the Rutgers University system.

Articles/blog about the proposal (be sure to read the comments, too):
Sign the petition to stop the takeover at

Sunday, February 5, 2012

R is for Rutgers!

Hear that crunching, crackling sound?  Hear that shattering glass and smashing steel?  That’s the sound of Rutgers/Camden being thrown under a bus by New Jersey politicians, and maybe by our own president and governing boards, in a proposal that would add a medical school to Rutgers New Brunswick at the expense of the Rutgers Camden campus, which would be taken over by the lesser-known Rowan University. 

This proposal is a study in magical thinking.  Rowan takes over, and magically Rutgers/Camden triples in size, creating a revitalization of Camden – no, not just a revitalization, a renaissance.  I’m not making this up – these are the terms being thrown around, and so far not a word has been spoken about where the money would come from to make this happen and how, specifically, two very different institutions could possibly become one.  This doesn’t surprise me, because politicians are known for engaging in magical thinking, or at least in magical speaking, as they spew forth vague, empty promises to get what they want.  That’s how they get elected. Vague promises, catchy little sound bites – it’s all part of the game. 

Politicians are also prone to “misspeaking” (a euphemism for “oops, I said what I really think”), as Gov. Christie did last week in his comments about the Civil Rights Movement, and as Romney did when he said that he “wasn’t worried about the very poor.”  And, just to be fair, if I had a nickel for every time Joe Biden “misspoke,” I’d donate the money and have a university named after me.  So, perhaps Christie misspoke when he justified the proposed takeover of the Rutgers Camden campus with his insulting statement that education in South Jersey is “good, not great,” although I’ve yet to hear an apology for that one. 

The problem with magical thinking is that it ignores the facts.  It’s time for a reality check.  The fact is that South Jersey already has a top-level research institution in Rutgers/Camden.  As a doctoral candidate in the only PhD program in Childhood Studies in North America, I’m proud to state that our Rutgers/Camden faculty is comprised of top scholars in the field who have drawn students from all over the world. I know that I’m only one student, but as a resident of PA I chose to pay the full, out-of-state tuition at Rutgers and to commute to Camden because I wanted the kind of rigorous education that I knew I’d receive at Rutgers. I’m proud to state that I have received a great, not good, education at Rutgers/Camden.  The scholars that I have had the privilege of studying under came to this area to be a part of Rutgers, and I fear they will leave if our Rutgers identity is stolen from us. Rather than triple in size, the Camden campus will shrink without the Rutgers name to attract faculty and students.

What does this have to do with my usual topic of race?  Probably nothing.  I hope nothing.  But if the takeover of the Rutgers/Camden campus becomes reality, the good work that Rutgers has done in the Camden community for decades will suffer.  As one sign at a recent rally stated, “If Rutgers leaves, Camden bleeds.”

Perhaps the most astonishing bit of magical thinking by the proponents of the takeover is the idea that the thousands of students, faculty, staff, administration and alumni of Rutgers/Camden will acquiesce and meekly give up their Rutgers identity.  Magical thinking has caused them to underestimate seriously our fierce attachment to our Rutgers identity and our ability to fight this plan with every legal means at our disposal. 

So, hear that roaring, thundering sound?  Hear those resolute voices and shouts?  That’s the sound of Rutgers/Camden students, faculty and staff stating in no uncertain terms, WE ARE RUTGERS, and Rutgers we intend to stay.

For more info on the proposal check out the facebook page at  Although this page consists of folks against the proposed takeover, many articles both pro and con have been posted there.

To join the fight against the takeover of Rutgers/Camden sign the petition at