Professor Hames-García’s Open Letter on blackface

11/4/2016 update: In case you are confused about why this blackface incident was so genuinely disturbing, Michael Hames-García (Professor of Ethnic Studies) has an excellent Open Letter to Pres Schill (and us all) in the Daily Emerald. Read it all, here is an excerpt:

… Part of the problem with blackface is that white people don’t know why it’s a problem. It’s impossible to understand why black people are so angered by its use unless one knows what it is that black people see when they see white people in blackface. From the perspective of the harm done, it doesn’t matter what the white person’s intention was.

Nothing about the history of what white people have done to black people and other people of color is shocking to people of color. We know that white people hung, burned alive and dismembered not hundreds, but thousands of black men and women, indigenous men and women, Mexican men and women, Chinese and Japanese men and women, and others for well over a hundred years. We know it was done with impunity. We know it was done publicly. We know they took genitalia from lynched men and women and collected them as souvenirs. We know they posed for pictures and made postcards to commemorate the events. We know that blackface and other racial impersonations were forms of entertainment for white people that were part of a larger dehumanizing process that made lynching possible. We know that these impersonations never honored us.

Unfortunately, many white people don’t know these things. They come to college and take a class about who-knows-what to fulfill a multicultural requirement and come away singing “Kumbaya” and decide to have a “Mexican gangster” or “pimps and hos” party at their sorority and don’t know why people of color are so sensitive about it.

The possibility that Shurtz’s act was done with no deliberate racist intent to harm makes it worse in my view. It confirms everything I suspect and fear daily about the ignorance and callous disregard for black humanity among my colleagues and students. It makes me less likely to trust my white colleagues. It makes me dislike them. In that sense, you need to understand that Shurtz has injured you.

At the same time, I am taken aback by the University’s swift suspension of Shurtz. I don’t know if the suspension happened in consultation with her, and I understand that the University has stated that this was not a disciplinary action.

Let me be clear. Shurtz is not a young, uninformed undergraduate. She has been a professor almost as long as I’ve been alive. She grew up during the civil rights movement. I find it very hard to accept any protestation of ignorance or statement of good intent from her. Do I find Shurtz’s behavior to be vile? Emphatically. Do I buy her protestations of goodwill? By no means. Do I join my Law School colleagues in calling for her to resign? With gusto. Her resignation would be the best, most productive action she could take, sparing the University, our students and her colleagues further trauma and embarrassment.

However, I fear there is a risk of scapegoating, with the effect that Shurtz is punished for the sins of many and outrage over her behavior evades discussion about what is, unfortunately, a common practice in U.S. society. This is the “bad apple” phenomenon that one sees in discussions of police shootings: You deal with the bad apple and pretend that the barrel isn’t rotten. …

Professor Hames-Garcia also wrote one of the most courageous statements I saw come out of attempted cover-up of the basketball rape allegations, here. He’s got a gift for turning disastrous events at UO into teachable moments. That said I disagree with his call for Shurtz to resign.

11/3/2016 updates: UO faculty union & Chicago Law’s Leiter weigh in, professor issues statement

The Faculty Union Exec Council has released a statement condemning the use of blackface, supporting the professor’s right to due process, and pointedly *not* demanding a resignation. Noted University of Chicago Law Professor Brian Leiter has ripped into those 23 UO law faculty (the law school is not part of the union) who called for the professor to resign. And the professor who put on the blackface has explained why. All below, starting with Leiter:

UPDATE:  Now 23 of the professor’s colleagues have called on the faculty member to resign if the allegations are true.  That reflects poorly on them, and suggests they have no regard for  contractual and constitutional rights to academic freedom, including the right to engage in racially insensitive extramural speech.  Absent a finding that the professor treats students or colleagues in racially discriminatory ways, there is no reason for the faculty member to resign (apologizing might be a good idea though!).

The Union:

Dear Colleagues,

The Executive Council of United Academics condemns the use of blackface as inherently racist. We find such actions anathema to our aspirations for a just community at the University of Oregon. We furthermore believe all faculty, in our bargaining unit or not, are entitled to a fair hearing and hope that any actions – including any suspension from duties – in response to allegations of misconduct or unethical behavior will be undertaken according to established procedures of due process and, under our CBA, with just cause.  We object to any administrative actions that violate these rights.

Like many, we do not have details or a full understanding of the recent incident, but regardless, the use of blackface evokes America’s racist history in a way that understandably offends and harms many in our community. When a white person puts on blackface, they invoke a history of brutality against black bodies as though the white person were putting on black skin for entertainment. The revulsion in this is found across a spectrum of racially discriminatory and violent actions, from the many racist media stereotypes of people of color to the horror of lynchings. For someone to evoke this history without being corrected by others is a collective harm that degrades all of us. Such actions damage the trust, respect, and safety we seek in a diverse community regardless of how they may have been intended….

The professor has also made a statement to the RG:

“During a Halloween party I hosted at my house, I wore a costume inspired by a book I highly admire, Dr. Damon Tweedy’s memoir, ‘Black Man in a White Coat.’ I intended to provoke a thoughtful discussion on racism in our society, in our educational institutions and in our professions. As part of my costume, I applied black makeup to my face and wore a white coat and stethoscope.

“In retrospect, my decision to wear black make up was wrong. It provoked a discussion of racism, but not as I intended. I am sorry for the resultant hurt and anger inspired by this event. It is cruelly ironic that this regrettable episode began with my admiration for a book that explores important aspects of race relations in our society, but ended up creating toxic feelings within our community. I intended to create a conversation about inequity, racism and our white blindness to them. Regrettably, I became an example of it. This has been a remarkable learning experience for me.

“I hope that all who are hurt or angered by my costume will accept my apology. I meant no harm to them or others.

“Out of respect for all involved, I will make no further comments to the media until the University’s investigation is completed.”

11/4/2016: More on blackfaced professor and Dean Moffitt’s decisions:

I’m still rummaging around for the law school letter criticizing Dean Moffitt’s past management. Meanwhile,

The RG Editorial Board:

… UO President Michael Schill responded quickly and forcefully. Law school colleagues and others have signed letters and petitions calling for the professor’s resignation. Schurtz has been placed on administrative leave, and the UO Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity is investigating.

Lesser reactions would condone offensive actions and imagery, and invite worse ones. But what the UO needs is not one fewer law professor, but more understanding. Shurtz’s experience offers an opportunity to explore the lines between self-expression and hurtful messaging, between cluelessness and consideration, between privilege and vulnerability. A university exists to teach students how to think, not what to think — and here’s a chance to do just that.

And, from Scott Jaschik in IHE:

… “It doesn’t matter what your intentions were. It doesn’t matter if it was protected by the First Amendment,” the letter says. “Blackface is patently offensive. It is overtly racist. It is wildly inappropriate. It reflects a profound lack of judgment. There is no excuse. We are angry that you would alienate our students, staff and faculty of color. We are angry that you would destroy what others have worked hard to build …. If you care about your students, you will resign.”

If Shurtz does not resign, some legal experts believe her actions — however foolish — are in fact protected by the First Amendment.

“Simply dressing in blackface or as an African-American at a party is indeed constitutionally protected expression that UO, a government agency, cannot punish,” said Robert L. Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

He cited a 1993 decision by a federal appeals court to block George Mason University from punishing a fraternity that held “an ugly woman contest” fund-raiser in which some fraternity members posed as caricatures of black women. The appeals court found that this event, however offensive, was protected by the First Amendment. “If such a skit is protected expression, this professor’s expression surely is as well,” Shibley said.

John K. Wilson, an independent scholar who writes regularly about academic freedom issues, agreed. Via email, he said, “When dealing with an extramural activity, there’s generally no valid punishment unless it shows incompetence in doing their work. That obviously doesn’t apply in this case. There’s no reason why wearing an offensive costume makes you a bad law professor.”

Michael Dreiling is a professor of sociology at Oregon who is president of United Academics, the faculty union at the university, an affiliate of the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers. Via email, he said, “Blackfacing is not only negligent, but hurtful, regardless of intentions. Even as we condemn blackfacing for the racist history the action evokes, we believe all faculty are entitled to a fair investigation and due process. We hope the university will recognize and respect these important rights in this case.”

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37 Responses to Professor Hames-García’s Open Letter on blackface

  1. Dog says:

    On the wisdom of UOmatters

    UOmatters is often criticized in sort of the same emotional/morally correct rush to judgement that is often posted on this blog.

    However,

    UOmatters says this

    Lesser reactions would condone offensive actions and imagery, and invite worse ones. But what the UO needs is not one fewer law professor, but more understanding. Shurtz’s experience offers an opportunity to explore the lines between self-expression and hurtful messaging, between cluelessness and consideration, between privilege and vulnerability. A university exists to teach students how to think, not what to think — and here’s a chance to do just that.

    Very well said – indeed reflective thinking and fair treatment ought to drive all dialogue and decisions and students need to be more exposed to that. The world has always been gray an nuanced. In our attempts and simplicity we generally produce polarization and the expense of common understanding and sensible judgement.

    • uomatters says:

      That was a quote, not my words, though I do agree with them.

      • M says:

        I did, the case cited has no relevance since it did not involve employees. SCOTUS has been quite clear that public employees only have the right to speech when said speech is of “public concern,” to which blackface clearly does not apply. Otherwise, “there may be a constitutional right to talk politics, but there is no constitutional right to be a policeman,” in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “It doesn’t matter what your intentions were. It doesn’t matter if it was protected by the First Amendment,”

    Actually, it does. Censorship from the left is just as bad as censorship from the right. We must nip it in the bud before we are all silenced in the name of “not offending anyone”. You can’t make all the people happy all the time, folks. (For the record, I do not condone black face and think this was a well meaning but not well thought out idea.)

    UO has no say in how its employees choose to express themselves off the clock. Will we sanction employees who attend Trump rallies as well?

    • M says:

      “UO has no say in how its employees choose to express themselves off the clock.”

      Of course it does. UO is no different than Taco Bell in this regard. You can be fired or reprimanded for almost any reason, at any time. “People who wear blackface” is not a protected class, nor is “people who support Trump.” The First Amendment doesn’t apply at all here.

      • uomatters says:

        Please read the post before commenting.

      • Anonymous says:

        It absolutely does not.

        You are completely relieved of duties when not on the clock, including your breaks but most definitely after hours. The university cannot forcibly change your personal, political, or religious views or stop you from expressing them (within reason of course).

        “You can be fired or reprimanded for almost any reason, at any time.”

        I hope to God you are not in management. This sentiment is exactly the reason I support unions. No, the University cannot keep its employees in a constant state of anxious dread over their employment and leverage that to silence their freedom of speech. Workers have rights, period.

        “The First Amendment doesn’t apply at all here.”

        Since we take federal money as a public institution, you better believe the 1st amendment applies here.

        I don’t know who you are, M, but I wish you the best.

        • M says:

          “Workers have rights, period.”

          Morally, yes. Legally, no. Outside of very specific circumstances, anyone can be legally fired at any time, for any reason. The first amendment primarily protects your legal right to wear blackface, not your professional right. But no one is (seriously) arguing that she should face criminal charges for her actions, so the “censorship” argument is largely a straw man. Her ability to wear blackface or engage in any other form of speach is not contingent on her continued employment at the university.

          And yes, public employees are granted more legal protection than private, her actions are way beyond what would be considered protected by any standard I can find.

          A manager at Taco Bell would certainly be fired for an action like this. I don’t see why she should be held to a different standard.

          • Anonymous says:

            Legally yes. Who are you, M? You honestly don’t know that employees have legal rights? I find that hard to believe, honestly.

            You fail to notice the difference between a federally funded University and a business. This is not Taco Bell, your analogy doesn’t apply, morally or legally.

            “anyone can be legally fired at any time, for any reason”

            Classified staff and tenured professors are all chuckling right now.

            “But no one is (seriously) arguing that she should face criminal charges for her actions, so the “censorship” argument is largely a straw man.”

            When the president of your University sends out a mass email regarding your personal speech on personal time, yeah, that’s effectively censorship. No straw man. Had this been someone dressing up in a KKK uniform chasing minorities around town with a noose, THAT would be both criminal and unprotected speech.

            “her actions are way beyond what would be considered protected by any standard I can find.”

            “No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write or print freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right.”
            The sweeping protection of that clause extends to all forms of speech, regardless of the social acceptability or offensiveness of the content,… and regardless of the context of the communication.” Merrick v. Board of Higher Educ., 841 P. 2d 646 – Or: Court of Appeals 1992

            “A manager at Taco Bell would certainly be fired for an action like this. I don’t see why she should be held to a different standard.”

            Taco Bell is a business and not held to the standard of a public institution that takes federal funding. Is the difference really so hard to see? The first amendment applies to one and not the other.

        • Anas clypeata says:

          Workers have rights, but continued employment is not a right. Take a look at an OA contract sometime. OAs are essentially at-will employees with long notice periods and can be let go for any legal reason, including no stated reason at all.

    • anonymous says:

      Some context would help. That quote immediately precedes the sentence “Blackface is patently offensive.” They are saying that intentions and rights don’t mitigate the offensiveness of the act. Not that the First Amendment does not matter at all.

      • Anonymous says:

        That distinction is lost on those who want to see threats to the 1A everywhere, Mencken’s hobgoblins. They are like the NRA od 1A jurisprudence.

        When dressing up in blackface is protected speech (it is) but colleagues calling you out for that is “censorship” then you know are not talking to a person who takes free speech seriously.

        They just want to insulate people from criticism for donning blackface (or whatever).

        No is being fired or formally reprimanded and I’ll be the first to barricades if the UO tries to push out this prof without due process as established in labor laws and our contract.

        But I have no problem with collegues calling her out. I support their free speech rights, too, at least as much as someone who thinks donning blackface is appropriate, if they believe their effort righteous and educational.

      • jackmckoy says:

        I guess my only question is how much of them demanded she be fired is because they don’t like her personally (and they are being opportunistic) vs how much of a true morale outrage they feel.

        My guess is its a bit of both.

        • uomatters says:

          Surely you’re not suggesting that self-interest and moral outrage are orthogonal?

        • Opportunity knocks says:

          Pushing out a tenured track professor would open up a seat that a non tenured track professor might be able to attain. Opportunistic? No doubt. Moral outrage is the perfect cover.

          • uomatters says:

            In most areas it’s very rare for a TTF slot to go to a current NTTF. There would be an outside search. (Or no search, given the fall in law enrollment.) Is law different?

  3. Nope says:

    UO is desperately trying to increase faculty diversity, believing that a diverse faculty leads to a better environment for education and research. How do we reconcile that initiative with the also important to education and research need for academic freedom of speech? What would be an appropriate response that won’t create the perception that this community is one that is hostile to people of color?

  4. anon says:

    Someone should ask Damon Tweedy what he thinks of all this: damon@damontweedy.com

  5. anonymous says:

    We are hearing a lot about Nancy Shurtz, what Nancy Shurtz’s intentions were, what Nancy Shurtz’s rights are, whether we are being fair to Nancy Shurtz, what this means for Nancy Shurtz’s career, and so on.

    I would like to hear more from the minority students, staff, and faculty on campus and people in the community. How they are personally and collectively affected by this action. How those effects are catalyzed by the climate on campus and in the community.

    Instead, the usual pattern in these cases is to focus on the offender. Some people will say she should resign, some will go a step further and want her terminated, FIRE will roll into town and grandstand about coddled campus PC wingnuts, and everybody will yell for a while.

    And at the end of it all, a bunch of people with real and serious concerns who are always either ignored or misrepresented just get ignored and misrepresented again, and we move on to the next thing.

  6. One reason why I would never (and I encourage other people to never) dress in black face is because I try to have compassion and empathize with others. It’s patently offensive and shouldn’t be done.

    At the same time, because I try to have compassion and empathize with others, I can’t imagine calling for someone to resign or be fired for one instance of exercising poor judgment.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Here’s a thought experiment for you ( in law, a hypothetical):
    Nancy Shurtz invites law faculty and her students to her house for a cross burning. Her intent is to show cross burning is wrong.
    Cross burning is protected speech (Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003))

    Would you feel differently about it?

    • uomatters says:

      I like to think I’d have told her what I thought, whether it was blackface or cross-burning. But I wasn’t at the party, so I don’t know what I’d have done, or what kept her friends from telling her it was not right.

  8. Thanks for the gasoline for our fire says:

    You post Prof. Hames-Garcia’s open letter as an example of excellence in teaching? Please explain. I call it inflammatory, self-righteous, and most certainly unhelpful. A few quotes:

    “many white people don’t know these things…”
    “It makes me less likely to trust my white colleagues. It makes me dislike them.”
    “Do I buy her protestations of goodwill? By no means.” [Would he care to explain why?]
    “Do I join my Law School colleagues in calling for her to resign? With gusto.” [Expressions made with self-righteous “gusto” are not what we need just now.]

    And then in the next paragraph he says we need to avoid scapegoating? Am I the only one suffering from cognitive whiplash?

    Excellence is not the concept that comes first to mind.

  9. criminal mind says:

    I don’t see how someone can be punished at a public university for Constitutionally protected free speech, which is what I am almost sure this was.

    Had I been at the party — thankfully, I was not — I might have inquired of her what she had in mind in wearing such a costume and makeup.

    As a member of a minority group, not black but one who has seen and heard offensive symbols and talk directed at my group on and off this campus, I think this has been blown way out of proportion.

    Get a life, people.

  10. We've got your back, maybe... says:

    The faculty union’s statement on this matter instills little confidence. Of 14 sentences in the statement, only one at the end mentions that the faculty member’s rights should be respected. The other 13 sentences purport to lecture us on why blackface is harmful.

    I understand law faculty are not part of the bargaining unit, but I would still have thought the union’s primary concern would be to vigorously condemn a scapegoating, witch-hunt mentality that results in public calls for termination or resignation.

    We don’t need the union to explain to us about why blackface could be construed as racist; I think we can figure that out for ourselves. Rather, we need a union that publicly and vigorously protects our contractual and legal rights as faculty members.

    If I’m unfortunate or stupid enough to become subject to this sort of public shaming for a lack of politically correct behavior, I’m now less than certain that my union will help protect me. I guess I’d have to call a different union — the ACLU.

    • uomatters says:

      The union statement includes clear language defending her rights:

      We furthermore believe all faculty, in our bargaining unit or not, are entitled to a fair hearing and hope that any actions – including any suspension from duties – in response to allegations of misconduct or unethical behavior will be undertaken according to established procedures of due process and, under our CBA, with just cause. We object to any administrative actions that violate these rights.

      I wish that statements from Dean Michael Moffitt and President Schill had at least mentioned her rights.

      The union had my back when President Gottfredson and Interim President Coltrane went after me, and I don’t think anyone should take the latter part of the letter to indicate that the union will not defend their rights to use the First Amendment and occasionally be a clueless idiot.

    • cdsinclair says:

      Did you even read United Academics’ statement?

      The first and last paragraph both address due process and scapegoating.

      The conversation which lead to our statement was long and difficult, and I personally, think it addresses both major aspects of the current “incident”.

      Everybody has their own point of view as to where the balance lies between recognition of harm to our community and protection for those who willingly or cluelessly inflict that harm under the guise of speech or good intentions.

      The executive committee does not agree on where that balance lies (and I personally, don’t even know where I stand on it). The best we could do was to put out a statement that recognizes this tension exists, and hopefully provide some context that hadn’t appeared in other public statements. In that regard (and maybe only that regard) I think the statement is good.

      It would be nice if the statement was read as carefully as it was constructed, because the complaint here that the union won’t stand for the employment rights or due process of the well-meaning or clueless in our ranks is just patently false. And our statement basically says that. Twice.

  11. Angry White says:

    “…white people don’t know why it’s a problem.”

    There is no such thing as reverse racism, only racism. You don’t know my people or out culture, Michael Hames-García, so stop generalizing us as an outsider. We know very well why blackface is a problem and why race-baiters like yourself are too.

  12. thedude says:

    So black professor’s like and trust their white colleagues less when 1 white person wears black face?

    How racist, biased and discriminatory is that?

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