This week, some thoughts on race. Next week, I’ll look at comments from two African-American friends and explore related issues.
Two weeks ago, two racial incidents resulted in the firing of offenders. One firing leaves me with questions regarding context and perspective.
An Oklahoma high-school basketball sportscaster responded to a girls team—only some players Black—kneeling for the national anthem with, “F*****g n*****s.” He claimed low blood sugar. Really? His firing was justified.
More difficult: A video lecture at Georgetown University Law Center. In a concluding snippet, adjunct professor Sandra Sellers told colleague David Batson, “I end up having this angst every semester that [re grades] a lot of my lower ones are Blacks. Happens almost every semester. And it’s like, Oh, come on. It’s some really good ones, but there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom; it drives me crazy.”
Georgetown Law fired Sellers. Batson, who listened without comment, resigned. Was this outcome correct?
Sellers said she had “angst.” Lower ranking students being Black seemed to disturb her. She referenced “some really good ones.” Her classes evidently have included accomplished Black students. Was Sellers antagonistic towards Black students and so gave them lower grades? Or did she wonder why so many Black students didn’t meet her academic standards? And what during the preceding lecture—if anything—provoked her comments?
Georgetown Law Dean William Treanor called Sellers’ comments “abhorrent.” He said he spoke with her and Batson, “giving each the opportunity to provide any additional context.” Did Sellers regret her remarks but say she isn’t racist? Treanor didn’t disclose details.
Playing devil’s advocate, did Georgetown Law, which took heat from the Black Law Students Association, fire Sellers for other reasons? Did admissions standards play a role? Are places opened for promising Black students with lower grades and test scores? That’s laudable—when schools offer such students assistance to get up to speed.
Had Sellers hinted that the school’s admission and post-admission practices are flawed? Did Treanor ask Sellers about that?
The video of Sellers’ comments gave me no impression of racism. But, was it racist by definition to comment on Black students? Is the subject off limits? How about mentions of other minorities?
If you want to nail me for being racially insensitive, I offer this: Over a five-year period, I served as a business volunteer teaching writing in various San Francisco public schools. At Galileo High, two male freshmen constantly acted out. Each ended up being suspended for several weeks. I’m no fan of suspension, but they undermined my efforts to teach and cost their fellow students valuable learning time.
Both were Black. Can I mention that? Can I also say that my classes included enthusiastic Black, Latinx and Asian-American students? Also that many non-Black juniors at Lowell—San Francisco’s premier academic high school—showed little interest. I wasn’t grading them, and their approach to school revolved around grades.
The Oklahoma broadcast slur seems clear cut. The issue at Georgetown Law may be more complex than implied by limited media coverage and the school’s brief response. It’s easy to make snap judgments, particularly since America remains rife with racism and anti-Semitism.
Context and perspective challenge us to think deeply about difficult issues, weigh complex points of view, face uncomfortable truths, admit our imperfections, sometimes withhold judgment. An even greater, more dangerous challenge confronts us when we ignore those tenets.
Read my short-short story, “The Signature,” published online in Flash Fiction Magazine.
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