September 23, 2019

A Reality Check

Much has been written over the past few days about the terrible incident at UCLA in which an active Jewish student was pummeled with questions by a student board about her prospective appointment to the board because, and only because, of her religion. Almost simultaneously there was an outrage at the University of Oklahoma where fraternity members engaged in a vulgarly racist chant that was recorded and uploaded to the internet.

Both were egregious examples of bigotry and vulgar stereotyping, seemingly from a bygone era.

The UCLA incident elicited prompt responses from the university administration— Chancellor Gene Block condemned the “intolerance” and urged the campus community to “create a campus community in which all of us can fully take part in campus life and express our views and identities, safe from intimidation, threat or harm.”

The offending inquisitors apologized, “we ask the Jewish community to accept our apology for remarks made during the February 10 USAC meeting concerning the potential Judicial Board appointee….we are truly sorry for any words we used….we look forward to engaging in cross-cultural exchange with the Jewish community and learning about what we can do better to support the community, with solidarity and respect.”

Within two days the Daily Bruin editorialized and condemned the “discriminatory” and “hypocritical” proceedings by a board that is “seemingly obsessed with celebrating diversity in student positions and advocating against discrimination.” This week the president of the University, Janet Napolitano, and the chair of the Regents made clear that incidents where “bigotry [is] directed against any members of the UC community because of their faith, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation will not be tolerated.” 

At Oklahoma, president of university, David Boren, promptly suspended the offending fraternity, expelled the students who participated in the racist singing and expressed his abhorrence at what occurred in no uncertain terms.

In the case of UCLA, there has been a groundswell of on-line petitions, op/eds and commentaries castigating the administration for not being assertive enough. One blogger decried Block and asserted “there is something foul afoot.” An on-line open letter to Chancellor Block I received decried the “escalating anti-Semitism at our alma mater…an inevitable consequence of the pervasive and relentless anti-Israel campaigns being promoted at the university.”

In the Oklahoma case, Boren is being criticized for acting too hastily and forcefully. The New York Civil Rights Coalition and UCLA Law School professor Eugene Volokh asserted that students can’t be expelled for the mere expression of views, however reprehensible. The incident is also being cited as evidence (by Charles Blow of The New York Times) of a wider rot in society, that “racism envelops us like a fog.”

What links these two cases are not just the bigotry, but, more importantly, the swift responses to the offensive actions by the student leadership, the administration, the media, and the public. They are also similar in demonstrating the ease with which critics described the events through their own prism and facilely criticized folks (especially administrators at public universities) who are in a very difficult position. Public university heads need to balance personal rights, constitutional constraints and what are, often, obvious bad acts. 

What most commentators are missing though is, in my view, the key part of these stories—the near universal recognition of and swift condemnation of the bigotry accompanied by rapid apologies from the offending parties.

It wasn’t all that long ago—-23 years to be exact—that I was involved in a nasty incident of anti-Semitism at UCLA in which the Black student newspaper, underwritten by UCLA and with a teacher/advisor, Nommo, had articles praising the notorious anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Subsequently the paper wrote about the “white Zionist f*cks” who had objected to their praise for the Protocols.

It took serious work to get the UCLA administration to act and admonish the students that there was something abhorrent about their bigotry, especially in a university funded publication. Ultimately, the university pulled some of its advertising in the paper (it still published it) and condemned the “hatred and divisiveness and engaging in personal and group denigration.” There was no widespread outrage, there was no apology—it was almost business as usual—“students will be students”.

Today, the story line is markedly different and, mercifully, these kinds of incidents are anomalies—that’s why they garner so much attention.

The measure of our society (contrary to Charles Blow’s assertion) is not the worst case scenarios that happen from time to time—there are, and always will be, jerks, fools and nasty bigots out there—but how society responds to these incidents and their perpetrators; is there outrage, condemnation, an understanding of what is wrong with what transpired and even apologies from the transgressors?

If there are, then the occasional bigotry—which is predictable and, today, almost always containable—can be dealt with. We are, after all, still “forming a more perfect union.”

What is not helpful is for the Chicken Littles of the world to claim that the “sky is falling” and that society is rotting while pressing forward with their particular agendas that often include a permanent state of kvetching.

We are moving in the right direction, it’s just that it is an occasionally bumpy road.