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

1 comment:

  1. I think this is very interesting and insightful. It also ties all of the negative energy pointed at Rutgers together in one place. Thanks Ms. Modica!!