When one of the first-year University of Texas law students who participated in a “ghetto fabulous” party posted pictures on the web, we saw the ugly face of white privilege and the racism in which it is rooted. But the depth of the problem of white supremacy at the university — and in mainstream institutions more generally — is also evident in the polite way in which the university administration chastised the students.
While the thoughtless actions of young adults acting out the racism of the culture are disturbing, the thoughtful — but depoliticized — response from the law school is distressing. The actions of both groups in this affair are a painful reminder of the depth of white society’s commitment to white supremacy.
This controversy is not unique to UT. It seems that every year students at a prestigious university — the University of Chicago last year, Cornell in 2004, and Texas A&M in 2003 — hold one of these parties, in which white students revel in what they believe to be the appearance and behavior of the black and brown people of the “ghetto.”
The student from the UT party who posted the photos has taken them off the web, but news reports describe a party in which the students “carried 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and wore Afro wigs, necklaces with large medallions and name tags bearing historically black and Hispanic names.” No one involved has contested the characterization of the event.
The motivations and views of participants may vary, but these parties have two consistent features:
(1) white people mock African American and Latino people through stereotypes of the residents of low-income urban areas, while at the same time enjoying the feeling of temporarily adopting these looks and poses; and
(2) the white folks typically do it without pausing to ponder what right they have as members of a dominant racial class to poach in this fashion on the lives of people of a subordinated racial class.
In other words, white people find pleasure in insulting non-white people while at the same time safely “slumming” for cheap thrills in that non-white world, all the time oblivious to the moral and political implications.
Also typical in these university controversies is a tepid reaction from administrators, who tend to avoid the contentious race politics at the core of the problem. At UT, the email that went out to all law students from Dean Larry Sager is revealing.
Let me be clear that this critique is not focused on the dean, or any other administrator involved. Sager, who has a distinguished record as a teacher, is a widely recognized constitutional scholar who has published important work on civil liberties, especially freedom of religion. He consulted other administrators and students before communicating to the entire student body, and his commitment to equality and diversity is clear. Still, his characterization of the incident is troubling.
The email to students doesn’t use the terms “racism” or “white supremacy.” The only reference to the racial politics of “ghetto fabulous” is the description of the party as being “named in a way that was easily understood to have negative racial overtones” and a reminder that being “racially insensitive” is inappropriate. While many of the students at the party may not have thought they were being racist, it’s essential that we name such activities as rooted in white people’s sense of privilege and entitlement, the result of historical and contemporary racism in a white-supremacist culture.
This language is crucial. Even with the gains of the civil-rights movement, U.S. society is still white supremacist in material terms (there are deep, enduring racialized disparities in measures of wealth and well-being, some of which haven’t improved in the past four decades) and ideology (many white people continue to believe that the culture and politics of Europe are inherently superior). To pretend that things such as a ghetto party are not rooted in those racist realities is to ignore fundamental moral and political issues in an unjust society. It’s not about “negative racial overtones” — it’s about racism, whether conscious or not. It’s not about being “racially insensitive” — it’s about support for white supremacy, whether intended or not.
The dean’s email to law students goes on to give three reasons the party was “thoughtless.”
First, Sager suggests that some students “might be seriously offended by the party, and especially by the pictures taken at the event.” No doubt many people were offended, and we all should avoid unnecessary offense to others. But the key problem is not that such images are offensive but that they are part of an oppressive system of white supremacy. In a pluralist society, we all can expect to be offended by some things other people say and do. Such offense becomes an important political issue when connected to the ways in which some people are systematically devalued and discriminated against.
Racist, sexist, and heterosexist images and words are a problem not merely because they offend but because they help keep non-white people, women, and lesbians and gays in subordinated positions. Framing the problem of oppressive systems as a question of offensiveness often leads people to argue that the solution is for the targets of the offensive speech or actions to be less sensitive, rather than changing the oppressive system. Sager’s email doesn’t suggest that, but it could play into that common feeling among people in the dominant classes. We live in a world in which the legitimate concerns of non-white people about racist expression and actions are often met by white people saying, “Stop whining — get over it.” In such a world, white people trying to resist racism should be careful not to do anything that could contribute to that.
Second, the email suggests that the partygoers didn’t consider “the potential harm they were causing to UT Law” by doing something that could make some people “feel uncomfortable simply because of who they are.” Most would agree that it’s important at a public institution of higher education for all people to feel accepted as part of the university community, but the real harm is not to the institution but to the people who are targeted. By highlighting the effect of this on “UT Law,” Sager risks elevating the institution above the principles involved and may well leave people wondering if the university isn’t worried most about its image.
Finally, and most important, the dean’s message warns the partygoers that they failed to consider “the extraordinary damage they could do to their own careers” in a society in which those who employ lawyers might not want to hire people who engage in such conduct. Sager warns that it is “genuinely foolhardy to engage in conduct (and even more foolhardy to proudly disseminate proof that you have done so) that could jeopardize your ability to practice law.” That’s certainly true, though it’s also true there are many places in Texas (and around the country) where the good old boys in power would find no problem with this kind of “harmless fun.” There are no doubt lots of practicing attorneys who enjoy similar kinds of fun themselves.
But whatever the case, should we be stressing to students that the reason they should not be white supremacists is that it might hurt their careers? What does such a message convey to students and to the community?
What’s missing in this official response is a clear statement that these law students — many of whom go on to join the ranks of the powerful who run society — have engaged in behavior that is overtly racist. Whatever their motivations in planning or attending the party, they have demonstrated that they have internalized a white-supremacist ideology. When these students are making future decisions in business, government, and education, how will such white supremacy manifest itself? And who will be hurt by that?
Here’s what we should say to students: The problem with a racist “ghetto fabulous” party isn’t that it offends some people or tarnishes the image of UT or may hurt careers. The problem is that it’s racist, and when you engage in such behavior you are deepening the racism of a white-supremacist culture, and that’s wrong. It violates the moral and political principles that we all say we endorse. It supports and strengthens an unjust social system that hurts people.
These incidents, and the universities’ responses, also raise a fundamental question about what we white people mean when we say we support “diversity.” Does that mean we are willing to invite some limited number of non-white people into our space, but with the implicit understanding that it will remain a white-defined space? Or does it mean a commitment to changing these institutions into truly multicultural places? If we’re serious about that, it has to mean not an occasional nod to other cultural practices, but an end to white-supremacist practices. It has to mean not only acknowledging other cultural practices but recognizing that the wealth of the United States and Europe is rooted in the destruction of some of those cultures over the past 500 years, and that we are living with the consequences of that destruction.
We white people can’t simply point to the ugliest racism of the KKK as the problem and feel morally superior. We can’t issue a polite warning to a few law students about being thoughtless and think we’ve done our job. The problem is that most of us white people — myself included — are comfortable in white spaces, and we often are reflexively hesitant to surrender control of that space. Real change — the process of truly incorporating a deep multiculturalism into our schools, churches, and businesses — is a long struggle. The more I make some progress in my own classes, for example, the more I see how much I have left to do and the more aware of my mistakes I become.
An easy place to start is by clearly marking racist actions for what they are — expressions of white people’s sense of entitlement and privilege that are rooted in a white-supremacist system. We can start by saying — unequivocally, in blunt language — that such racism is morally wrong, that white supremacy is morally wrong, and that we white people have an obligation to hold ourselves and each other accountable until we have created a truly just multiracial society.
We’ll know we are there not when white people have stopped throwing ghetto parties, but when we have built a world in which there are no ghettos.
We have a long way to go.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.