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February 19, 2003 [feather]
Sentimental multiculturalism
Crystal Thompson's soft voice quavered as she stood at a microphone in a packed auditorium and faced the University of Texas president.

"What are you going to do to keep me here? What are you going to do so I should convince my brother to go here?" the college senior, who is black, asked UT President Larry Faulkner.

So begins the Dallas Morning News coverage of Monday night's University of Texas public forum on campus race relations (registration required). In recent weeks, UT has been the scene of a number of "racially insensitive" incidents, ranging from the egging of the school's Martin Luther King, Jr. statue on MLK day, a fraternity "gin and juice" party where some students wore blackface and other racially provocative costumes, and the alleged racial profiling of a black UT student by campus security. UT President Larry Faulkner has responded to the student outcry by deploring the insensitivity of those who were involved in these events, founding a campus task force on racial respect, investigating the offending fraternities with intent to punish, and by holding Monday night's town meeting.

I've written at length about the individual events, none of which are as clear-cut as offended UT students would have them. I've also commented on Faulkner's extremely problematic response to outraged students: light on reason and heavy on appeasement, his is a classic instance of administrative toadying that patronizes students while pretending to respect them.

What I want to note now: the unbridled and uncritical sentimentalism of Linda Wertheimer's Dallas Morning News piece. It begins with the quavering voice of the helpless victim, moves from that opening tableau of trembling emotion through a summary of recent events at UT and a recap of the Monday meeting, and closes on a tearful note by returning, dramatically, to the figure of the wounded innocent with which it began:

Ms. Thompson, the young woman who wanted to know what to tell her brother about UT, praised the administrator for trying. "I do commend you on your efforts," she said. "I just want you to see the big picture."

Dr. Faulkner replied: "I just want you to be proud of UT."

Ms. Thompson walked away from the microphone, her eyes wet.

The manipulativeness of this piece is palpable: we are supposed to be crying, too, by the end of it. Or, at the very least, we are supposed to identify with the student, who has courageously faced the man presiding over her educational oppression and whose effort to make him see through her (wet) eyes has cost her such emotional upheaval. This is strange procedure for supposedly neutral reporting, not least because of the way it relies on precisely the sort of racial stereotyping that some UT students say is rampant on their campus.

Wertheimer wants to promote the cause of UT students--and their claim that UT is a racist environment--not by closely examining facts, but by playing on the reader's sympathy. In so doing, she abandons journalistic standards. There are people at UT who would dispute the claim that it is a racist environment, and there are others who would argue that pandering to the sensitivities of minority students (by, for example, seeking to suppress and punish racially insensitive speech) will only exacerbate racial tensions. But the writer of the piece does not acknowledge this. Her aim is emotional, not intellectual. She does not want to explore, or even report, the complexity of the issues. She wants, rather, to short circuit argument through emotional appeal: by getting readers' feelings involved, she solicits their cooperation in treating a complex, extraordinarily fraught philosophical, historical, and ethical situation as if it were an obvious problem with--it follows--an obvious solution. And as such, she compromises her own project by casting UT students' quest for tolerance as simply another chapter in the long rhetorical history of blacks' abject subordination to whites.

Crystal Thompson is shown in a posture of helpless dependence before the white master of the school. She wants to know what he is going to do to make her feel better, and to make her brother feel welcome. She is in his hands, he holds the power to determine her fate. He stands strong and silent; she quivers and weeps and pleads. The image of the abject slave on her knees before her master, begging for mercy, hovers unpleasantly behind Wertheimer's rhetoric. It's every bit as problematic as wearing blackface to a party or egging a statue of a black leader. And as such it should give us pause.

posted on February 19, 2003 10:23 AM


Isn't UT absulutely huge? Is the racism so prevalent that on a campus with zilions of people the sensitive can't carve out a little, wee pocket of safety for themselves?

Posted by: K. Coe at February 19, 2003 3:19 PM

Does anyone think for one minute that if that was a white student saying these things that it would have gotten one iota of coverage? no. The media has their own agenda as to how things should be and shamelessly try to manipulate a story for their own craven purposes. They surely are not crying for those students at Michigan (and God knows where else) who were passed over for less qualified minority students in the name of diversity. Typical Leftist Claptrap.

Posted by: Robert G. Laurent, Jr. at February 20, 2003 2:13 AM

The message I heard in this student's words was her massive sense of entitlement, the arrogance of a woman who knows she's the object of a bidding war as a result of the color of her skin.

After all, she's challenging the university to come up with a better deal in order to convince her brother to attend.

Her words pierce the pretense that blacks suffer from bigotry and exclusion. In fact, they are the pampered pets of the campus, as her words clearly state.

Posted by: Stephen at February 20, 2003 2:56 PM

I agree with Stephen. The entitlement attitude breeds resentment breeds a white population that may be more prone to racism for folks with that tendency. Frustrating state of affairs.

Interesting read. Thanks.

Posted by: Richard Ames at February 21, 2003 5:04 AM

As an average white male nerd that was beat-up on a regular basis through Jr. High & High school, I really have a real hard time seeing a real racial issue at UT.

Of course we white guys don't merit any pandering by the victim class.

It never occurs to the Crystal Thompson's of the world that it's their whining that targets them, not their race. Kinda like know-it-all, curve breaking, loud-mouthed, nerds.

Posted by: Alex at February 25, 2003 7:16 PM