On Tuesday, March 8, the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts held a conversation between Micheal Eric Dyson Ph.D. and John H. McWhorter Ph.D. titled “Race, Liberty & Justice: Diverging Perspectives with Eyes on the Prize,” regarding their diverging opinions on race in the United States. Due to recent events in the university community, including the student protest at the “A Community in Action” event, the Quick Center included students on stage to ask questions to Dyson and McWhorter. The students included were Mario Williams ‘23, Aliyah Seenauth ‘24, Eden Marchese ‘23, Lauren Fleckenstein ‘22 and Sebastian Michel ‘23.
Peter Van Heerden, executive director of the Quick Center, opened the event stating that this was the first Open Visions Forum project in two and a half years and adds that it “really has been amazing to have people back in the house.”
He then passed the podium off to University President Mark Nemec Ph.D.
“Fairfield University is dedicated to free expression and open dialogue in the spirits of inquiry, humility, generosity, and intellectual honesty and rigor,” he states, continuing, “In keeping with this mission and approach, we are wholly dedicated to serving as a home and a sponsor of critical figures.”
Nemec continues by introducing Dyson and McWhorter.
Dyson is an ordained Baptist Minister, Georgetown University sociology professor, a New York Times contributing opinion writer and a contributing editor of The New Republic.
Nemec also mentions that Dyson has authored 20 books, with his most recent “…tracing the current racial issues tackled in America today to their roots in slavery while pointing to a direction of social redemption.”
McWhorter is an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and is a regular contributor to The New Republic, the Atlantic, and the New York Times.
Nemec adds, “Dr. McWhorter challenges both victimization, separatism and anti-intellectualism and votes as underlying problems, injury, racial equality in the eyes of the American public.”
Nemec then hands the microphone off to Philip Eliasoph, Ph.D., art history professor and the founder of the Open Visions Forum.
Eliasoph opens by discussing how the COVID pandemic and recent news in Ukraine has impacted the nation and all in the audience but adds, “At the same time, here on our Fairfield campus in recent weeks, each of us – students, faculty, administrative staff – have been pulled into the vortex of debate, dissent and urgent calls to action.”
He continues that in all his 25 years running the forum, “We’ve never had such a perfectly opportune event as tonight’s program. Talk about being in the moment!”
Eliasoph then sits down with the students, Dyson and McWhorter, then explains that each student will have an opportunity to ask a question, and Dyson and McWhorter both will be able to respond.
Williams starts and states that it is “unacceptable” that the Black student population at Fairfield is less than 2%, and asks “How can the current Black Student Union work alongside faculty, administrators, and the Board of Trustees to ensure the increase of black students at Fairfield University?”
McWhorter began first and said that the first question that needs to be asked is why the number is so low.
“I doubt the reason for that is that there are racists in the Faculty and administration and that’s what makes it complicated” he states continuing that the next question is, “What can you do about it?”
He states that outreach is “very, very important”, but so is the way the University rates students that apply in terms of testing.
“I don’t think it’s productive to suppose that the reason is because of a racist sentiment among people who run the school” he adds, “It would almost be easier if that’s what it was because you can protest that…but it’s probably not that and so it’s more complicated.”
Dyson stated that he largely agreed with McWhorter, “I think that the ‘point the finger phenomenon’… would indeed be far easier than what I think is a structural problem.”
“I think trickiness of what a structural problem is, is that you don’t have to have bad intention to have bad results,” Dyson adds, continuing, “So we don’t have to say, ‘Hey, I don’t like these people or keep them out you know, when the structure itself is going for you.”
He adds that there needs to be a “…look at the structural factors that prohibit the flourishing of certain communities…and then we become more conscious of what we’re doing that might enable those students to feel more at home.”
Michel then asked his question. “My question for you both is what duty do members of the board of trustees have toward serving underrepresented students on the campus and what should their role look like?”
McWhorter starts and asks Michele to expand on what he means by “serve.”
“I’m not saying you don’t have any needs,” he adds, but that when he was in college he was constantly told by others that he had needs, “I genuinely didn’t know what those were and I never learned what they were.”
Michele clarified that many first-year students have told him that they feel like they don’t belong at Fairfield.
“Yes,” McWhorter continues, pausing for a few seconds, “But the demand should be clear and it should be envisioned as possible that if those requests are met, it will be enough.”
He adds that it shouldn’t be that you’re asking for three things this year and then the next year you ask for three more, “I would ask the administration for something that would actually create a sense of peace.”
Dyson comments that it seems like McWhorter had a “white experience” at college.
He continues that those in the “majority of society” have “…no conscious needs to be met, because they’re being constantly thought of for you.”
Dyson adds that he disagrees with McWhorter’s comment on the continuous asks as the asks should be dynamic, “You grow, the school grows, and then, together you get to discover what those needs are.”
Marchese then asks their question to Dyson and McWhorter regarding institutional neutrality in connection with Nemec’s statement on the removal of the Black Lives Matter flag.
“How do you believe ideas of so-called …neutrality affect discussions around issues of race and what do those stances possibly take away from those discussions as well? As, is it even possible to be neutral to begin with when you’re entering these discussions?”
Dyson jokingly asks, “Have we been paid yet?” before continuing, “Let me say it first because John [McWhorter] is gonna be far more reasonable.”
He begins by quoting Howard Zinn, “It’s hard to be neutral on a moving train.”
He continues that throughout history there have been these groups of people that feel as if “…they can make judgments on issues because they’ve identified with something that is wholly dispassionate and disinterested in the moment.”
He adds that he doesn’t believe in this kind of objectivity and neutrality.
“So I understand the point of a President talking about, you know, critical neutrality, when it comes to certain ideas,” Dyson states, adding, “But certainly we don’t say that [for] everything? We’re not going to say that about Holocaust denial?”
He adds that fairness is key too, as there’s a difficulty in deciding which movement or thing gets a moment. “Of course, we want to be as fair as possible but does fair mean we give Black Lives Matter a moment and then we give the confederate flag a moment?”
He finishes, “As a President of an institution I want to preserve the possibility of argument… but in the context within which we live now it might be more difficult to.”
McWhorter added, “To lead a university in 2022, I would consider it advisable to not choke on the words, Black Lives Matter.”
He then goes on to discuss that the fact that George Floyd was murdered by Police Officer Derek Chauvin because Floyd was Black is not a truth.
“The idea that I’m going to lay it out here, George Floyd died because he was Black. That’s not a truth. I know that it seems like it’s a truth.”
McWhorter continues, “The cops have a problem with murdering people in this country.”
“The fact is that for every Black man you see unjustifiably killed by, usually, white cops – although often Black and Latino ones. For every one of those people, there are literally three or four young white guys being killed under exactly the same conditions, who you hear nothing about” McWhorter adds.
He goes on to say that it’s the media that plays a role in this false narrative and the statistics regarding the fact that Black men are killed in numbers disproportionate to their population as a whole. McWhorter instead states, “What really brings people in contact with the cops to get killed is poverty.”
To prove his point he states that Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to get killed by the police, but also, “Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be poor.”
“There’s a reason those numbers match,” he said.
He went on to add that cops are “meaner” to Black men, “more yelling, more pushing, more hands up against the wall.”
But, “In terms of actually pulling the trigger, they’re less likely to kill Black men.”
He tells a story about a white man that was killed by police similarly to George Floyd, but, “The country never paid attention.”
He clarifies, “I’m not saying there isn’t a cop problem… but the idea that there’s this murder epidemic from white cops against Black men…I’m glad it doesn’t go through. I used to think it did too!”
Dyson, discussing the work of Khalil Gibran Muhammad Ph.D, a professor at Harvard University, stated that it’s not a new phenomenon that poor Americans are killed by police. But communities like the Irish, Polish, or other immigrant groups, who at one point were minorities in society, were able to regain their standing in society due to the help from the community.
He continues to discuss that in the Chauvin instance, it seems likely that race was the core factor, as Chauvin had instances of excess violence against Black men in his record.
But adds that it’s not just white cops, as in the Chauvin case, “There was a Black cop on his [Floyd’s] back, another white cop on his legs, and an Asian cop on the lookout.”
“Diversity by itself can never necessarily be automatically… just” he adds, continuing that even amongst Black Americans, unconscious bias and instincts are “nurtured.”
“The President of the school has to understand the immediate consequence to the goodwill of the community in which he is involved and the degree to which that refusal to acknowledge what Black Lives Matter might be has a particular empirically defined impact on the community in which it exists,” he finishes, “So they’re a number of ways of asking for a moral commitment even as you maintain a fairness to all parties involved.”
Seenauth then asked her question quoting Nemec’s line in the “A Community in Action Event.” At the event, Nemec stated, “As a Jesuit Catholic University, our discussion welcomes socialist capitalists, distributed libertarians, anti-racist and anti-anti racist perspectives, and all points across the spectrum characterized by rigor and intellectual honesty.”
Seenauth asked the pair their positions on what “anti-anti-racism” is and whether or not someone can be “anti-anti-racist.”
McWhorter jumped in and said this doesn’t necessarily mean someone is pro-racism but could be against the new form of “anti-racism” where groups of people are looking through everything for examples of racism. He adds that though he sides with this group, he wouldn’t use the word “anti-anti-racist” to describe himself. He continues that he doesn’t believe the President wants to encourage bigots, but instead Nemec wants to bring in people who are against a modern view of anti-racism that’s come about recently.
Dyson asks if there’s a better way to say those who are against the new anti-racist belief without saying “anti-anti-racist.”
“I feel kinda weird referring to the President while he’s still here,” Dyson jokes, saying they should invite him up on stage to ask what he really means.
“Now… has the President said ‘Black Lives Matter’?” Dyson asks, looking at the students.
“No,” Seenauth says.
“Oh…” Dyson said, pausing as the audience laughed, “…shit.”
He adds, “Well look…you can say anti-anti-racist if you’ve already said, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ If you haven’t said that, it’s a problem.”
He continues that having a space to learn, grow and allow forgiveness is important.
He finishes, “But I don’t think in 2022 the failure to acknowledge the fundamental fact of Black Lives Matter can, in many ways, escape notice as a leader of an educational institution.”
McWhorter jumps right back in to add that in today’s world, anti-racism means that there’s often no space for an apology or forgiveness.
“That is something that people are against so if you talk about being an “anti-anti-racist” that might be the kind of thing that you’re thinking about,” he adds, “We’re losing what an apology even is.”
Lastly, Fleckenstein’s question was asked of the pair regarding whether or not Black Studies classes are needed in every subject area regarding the impact their study has on Black lives.
McWhorter begins by asking why just that one thing? “Race is important… but what about the other five things.”
“The argument for that has to be that the impact upon communities of people of color is paramount over about four or five other issues that one may think about when thinking about how to fix the world” McWhorter adds, continuing that climate change and the economic inequities are also impacting our society, “So what about that?”
Dyson states, “The beautiful thing about Black History is that it covers all of that stuff.”
He adds that Martin Luther King was arguing that white Americans should also get involved in the Civil Rights movement, “He [King] understood that one of the vicious consequences of white racism is that it obscured the fact… that poor Black people, poor Latino people, poor white folks, poor Asian and others have much more in common than they do apart.”
“You hold up an empty promise of the payoff of whiteness as adequate compensation for your lack of economic wealth,” Dyson adds, stating that if white people joined up in the protest with Black people for social progress it would resolve those economic issues as well.
The event then moves on the audience question portion of the event.
Rev. Paul Rourke, S.J asked the first question from the audience, “You’re both academics, and we’ve been talking a lot about issues at Fairfield, so my question to both of you would be… what is the just end of a university and how do you think we achieve our mission?”
Dyson started, “The just end of a university is to function as a center of critical consciousness, of systemic study, of radical skepticism, about truth claims, and the ability to bring enlightenment within the scope of empathy and not have one damage the other.”
McWhorter mentions that his mom was a college professor and he asked her once, “Why do people go to college?”
“My mother said, ‘Well it’s not so that you know what the capital of Michigan is’…. She said, ‘Your horizons are expanded,” he added, “She said, ‘If you listen to people who didn’t go to college’…and this is overgeneralizing it, she was saying, ‘People who didn’t go to college… sit around agreeing with each other.”
He adds that what this means is, “Your comfort zone is often not where it is.”
The questions then shifted to McWhorter’s earlier comments regarding poverty and police violence. An audience member stated that they believed McWhorter’s view was “somewhat simplistic” because he didn’t take into account opportunity.
“Nobody has ever stopped me from driving while Jewish,” he adds, “But, [people] do get stopped for driving while Black.”
McWhorter says he understands but believes he was misunderstood as he was only discussing murders and that, “When I was talking about how cops are meaner to Black men” he stated that included increased police stops, stop and frisks, etc., the only thing he connected to poverty was murder.
The audience member jumped back in and stated that Black murder is also a “function of opportunity” before walking away from the microphone.
McWhorter stated again the two statistics regarding the fact that Black people are both 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by police and to be poorer and the audience member turns back to the mic to state, “You know that’s not necessarily the truth.”
McWhorter’s asks why the audience member is so resistant to the possibility of that being true, “What are you afraid is going to happen if you allow that the murder rate is parallel with the poverty rate?”
Dyson jumps in to reorient the question to McWhorter and discusses how even though McWhorter connected poverty to murder, there’s still a lot of racially charged language and annoymosity from police towards Black people. He goes on to say that, further, many more Black people discuss their negative interactions with police than white people.
McWhorter adds that he denies none of that but the fact that cops are killing Black people more due to underlying racism “doesn’t hold up.”
The audience question moves on to one regarding apathy from both college students and Americans generally.
They both agree that apathy has been a problem for decades.
McWhorter adds that apathy is probably less now due to the creation of social media, “But if your question is how do you get more people engaged, I’m not sure that I would say I know why it would be necessary.”
He continues that so much change happens just from small groups of people.
Dyson agrees stating that the 1960s Civil Rights movement is a perfect example of the small groups of people making a change. “The religion I follow, one guy and 12 disciples, they [were] trying to change the world.”
After the event, Philip Eliasoph spoke to the Mirror but was interrupted by a woman coming up to him and thanking him for the event, “It was good for the soul” she stated.
Eliasoph then stated, “The students really stepped up and made us as members of the college and members of the faculty very proud of their honesty and their ability to articulate what was in their hearts and minds.”
When asked about the last-minute addition of the students on stage, Van Heerden, executive director of the Quick Center, said to the Mirror after the event, “I think we’ve always tried to engage students in our programs all the time…but what a moment.”
“This critical moment has happened on campus and I think there would be no one better to represent the movement and the head of the era than the student body.”