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.

Enjoyed this post—and the story? Please pass them on. 


  1. Sandy Lipkowitz on March 29, 2021 at 10:37 pm

    I think there is a difference between being racist and being biased. Being biased is much more subtle and many good meaning people are biased and don’t even realize it. As a Jew I have experienced bias from friends who would be hurt and embarrassed if they knew they had somehow offended me. They in no way consciously would want to do that. They aren’t racists. Biases are so subtle and often part of the majority culture, that those people, in the majority, don’t even know they are being offensive. They may even think they are being helpful. I think there is a lot of education that needs to be done, to expose biases, that all of us have and don’t even realize.

    • David Perlstein on March 30, 2021 at 8:06 am

      Well put, Sandy. Distinguishing between racism and bias can be challenging, but such consideration should be made. This enables us to teach and learn rather than automatically condemn and shun. I’ll be covering a bit of this in my upcoming post this Friday.

  2. Ellen Newman on April 2, 2021 at 11:18 am

    I have a lot to say about all this, but will keep it short. The one thing I have learned during my international travels is that every majority culture takes a tribal approach to its minority cultures … Hindus in India toward the Muslims in India, people in Costa Rica toward their neighbors in Nicaragua (all crime was blamed on them) and so on. The list is huge. I was taken aback by the racism I saw in Israel. The list can go on forever.

    Fighting bias is basically fighting human nature and our primate tribalism. That’s what makes it so difficult. And the changing rules/expectations of our current time and “woke” culture can be quite disorienting.

    • David Perlstein on April 2, 2021 at 11:34 am

      Bias is, indeed, human and global, Ellen. The challenge is protecting minorities legally (and physically as appropriate) while chipping away at racism/bias through education and, more important possibly, contact. Difficult to change human nature? Of course. And yet, over the course of our lifetimes, a great deal of change has taken place. Will we reach the level of perfection? No. Can we improve the situation? I believe that we can.

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