Racial tensions on American campuses

By Jesse Anderson
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, July 4, 2017
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Students embrace one another during a forum on the campus of University of Missouri - Columbia on November 9, 2015 in Columbia, Missouri. (Xinhua)

For anyone who hasn't lived in the U.S. for a long stretch of time, and perhaps even for people who have, the country's racial problems can be difficult to understand. It's no secret that the U.S. -- like many other places around the world -- has a history fraught with what is now considered horrible mistreatment towards minorities, and most notoriously towards blacks.

This has led to a kind of collective guilt in the American conscience and is the reason the country adopted affirmative action and preferential hiring policies.

Few Americans would claim that their government doesn't owe something to blacks, as a group, for past injustices. But there is a very large debate going on now about just how much is owed to them, with some people going so far as to claim that ancestors of slaves should receive monetary reparations in one form or another.

It's a complicated issue, and it manifests itself in various forms at different times throughout the U.S. One of the recent examples is the series of events that unfolded at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, during the past several months. It's a strange story, and one that reveals the tensions still surrounding race relations in the U.S.

It began with an annual tradition at Evergreen known as "Day of Absence." Until this year, the day went like this: black students and faculty would choose one day of the year to voluntarily stay off of Evergreen's campus in order to highlight their contributions to the college's functioning. It wasn't a controversial event, and many people involved with the college thought it did exactly what it was designed to do.

But this year, the tradition was altered: instead of blacks absenting themselves from campus, whites would be encouraged to stay away for the day. Initially, this change met little resistance. However, a biology professor named Bret Weinstein soon wrote an open letter to the other faculty and staff members at Evergreen saying that he objected to the idea of whites being made to stay off campus.

The crux of his argument was that there's a big difference between a group voluntarily staying off campus, as had been the case in the past, and a group being told to stay off campus, which he felt was essentially what the alteration did.

When word of Weinstein's letter reached students, things began to intensify. A large group of students confronted Weinstein outside of his classroom demanding to know why he objected to the change in the tradition. The whole exchange was taped and went somewhat viral on Youtube. Weinstein refused to admit that he'd been wrong in criticizing the change, and over the weeks that followed students began insisting that Weinstein was a racist for not agreeing to it and pushing for him to be fired. Based on a phone call from the police, Weinstein soon felt that his safety was threatened and was forced to hold his final classes of the semester off campus.

This then led to students confronting Evergreen's president, George Bridges. Their exchange, which can also be seen on Youtube, is somewhat surreal. The students make a series of claims and demands regarding the status of minorities at Evergreen, which Bridges politely listens to. The students, however, make increasingly odd statements, going so far as to call Bridges' hand gestures racist. At one point, a student even stands next to Bridges and slaps his hands against legs, signaling that he wants Bridges to keep his hands down at his sides -- which he does. Bridges has received widespread criticism for his obsequious behavior, and some have called for him to be fired due to his poor handling of the situation.

The events at Evergreen received national attention, with many commentators seeing them as the natural result of the wave of political correctness that has been sweeping over American campuses in recent years. Amidst all the confusion, a man even called the police claiming that he was going to go to Evergreen and start shooting as many people as he could -- a claim that fortunately turned out to be a hoax.

Evergreen is out for the summer, but the situation remains unresolved. The Washington State government has been holding hearings about the events, but no real conclusions have been reached. Weinstein hasn't been fired, but he has said in interviews that he imagines it would be difficult to return to teaching for the fall semester.

Regarding who is in the wrong or right, it's difficult to watch the videos circulating online and not come to the conclusion that the students are overreacting to Weinstein's letter, while Weinstein himself comes off as a very reasonable person in interviews. Whatever the case, the situation will be a difficult one to resolve.

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