As much of the country knows, Jerry Hough, James B. Duke Professor of Political Science at Duke University, recently wrote a response to a New York Times editorial about riots, segregation and poverty in Baltimore in which he condemned the editors for telling “the blacks,” as he put it, “to feel sorry for themselves.” Comparing African Americans unfavorably to Asian Americans, Hough stated that “the Asians” did not blame white racism and “didn’t feel sorry for themselves but worked doubly hard” in order to overcome racial discrimination.
At Duke, according to Hough, “every Asian student has a very simple old American name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.” Branding himself “a follower of Martin Luther King in the 1950s,” Hough asserts in a separate letter, “Dr. King was talking about a melting pot America, not a diverse one.”
Hough has called intermarriage with white people “crucial” to American minorities. At Duke, “the Asians” often date white students, he claimed, and so “the intermarriage” is sure to follow. “Black-white dating,” by contrast, “is almost non-existent because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone dating a white.”
He stumbles through what he regards as a history of American ethnic politics. “In the North,” Hough says, “race was culture, not color.” Poles, Irish, Jews, and other groups were once considered “races,” just like “the blacks,” but they found a place in American life by hard work and accommodation to the larger culture. The racial history of groups like Polish-, Irish- and Asian-Americans, Hough says, offers a model for African Americans, who have performed so poorly because they refused to integrate and intermarry. “[Martin Luther] King helped [‘the Asians’] overcome,” he argues. “The blacks followed Malcolm X.” According to Hough, “for blacks I think the time has come to focus more on the Asian experience and its lessons for them.” Apparently the answer to white supremacy is for everyone to become white.
Asian Americans at Duke and nearby UNC Chapel Hill were quick to point out the myriad range of Asian-American experiences and to defy Hough’s attempt to set them up as “the Model Minority.” A public statement by 28 Asian-American faculty, staff and students called Hough’s characterizations “deeply misguided and fundamentally racist.” They rejected “Hough’s misuse of Asian-American experiences at large not only to berate African Americans and deny them racial justice but to uphold white supremacy.”
How a chaired professor with three Harvard degrees and 13 books to his credit can think such thoughts, let alone say them, is a mystery. Citizens from coast to coast have blasted Hough on Twitter and Facebook, and he’s been the subject of any number of indignation-feeding news stories. But among the things that have been overlooked are the number of Americans who quietly share his views and the necessity for taking them seriously. It may be that Hough, the ignorant college professor, still has something to teach us.
In his ongoing explanations, Hough presents himself as the healing voice of hard candor. “I am 80 and I figure I can speak truth as I see it. Ignorant I am not.” But to others he says, “The time has come to stop talking about race relations generally” and to start talking instead about “the Asians” and “the Poles” and their model behavior in America. In other words, Hough gets to rant about race relations, and you need to shut up, get to work and, if you’re black, find a white person to marry.
From Thomas Jefferson to Strom Thurmond, however, white men’s sexual relations with black women, often coercive, has not appeared to elevate white consciousness toward African Americans at a systemic level. They still managed to hold slaves, defend segregation, and rant against “miscegenation.”
Duke University’s official response to Hough was necessary and sufficient. Hough’s comments were “noxious, offensive, and have no place in civil discourse,” a University spokesperson said. Asserting Duke’s “deeply held commitment to inclusiveness grounded in respect for all,” he observed, “we encourage our community to speak out when they feel that those ideals are challenged or undermined, as they were in this case.” The commentary also noted Hough’s academic freedom to write and speak as he wished. Duke’s Black Faculty Caucus praised the “clear and direct statement.”
Between the high horse of popular indignation and the steady decency of Duke’s response, much of what absolutely needs to be said has been said. Sadly, though, most of the conversation leaves everyone that is not a forthright bigot or a clumsy racialist feeling all pristine and rosy. There are two places, however, where much of America appears to agree with Hough but doesn’t want to say so.
First, Hough’s brief history of American ethnic politics, which faults African Americans for their own dilemmas and paints other groups as shining successes who have risen by hard work and positive outlook, is something you can hear all over the country, from boardroom to poolroom. Many people of all hues cannot decide whether it is cultural or genetic but agree with Hough that something is wrong with black people.
Hough’s commonplace “history” is the shallow, impressionistic and wrong-headed account that uses invidious stereotypes, sweeping generalizations and convenient falsehoods to reach preordained conclusions, overlooking the messy and painful realities of our actual history. “An invented past can never be used,” writes James Baldwin. “It cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”
For African Americans, this country has been the insoluble melting pot, the one that doesn’t melt. It has been the dark and bloody ground. We have operated by the one-drop rule; that is, any visible evidence of African ancestry makes you black. And black Americans, for their part, have seen overwhelming evidence that unity, pride and power are the engines of progress and dignity.
After Emancipation, hope for African Americans citizenship died in white mob violence that overthrew the Reconstruction governments and installed white dominion by force, fraud, and slander. In the Jim Crow South, black citizens lived “under the heel of a regime that elevated armed robbery to a governing principle,” writes Ta-Nahesi Coates. The fruits of their labor, any land they acquired, the privileges of citizenship, any economic ground they gained, and sometimes their very lives were stolen from them. After World War II, black Southerners struggled for decades to obtain a narrow legal equality, and white opposition to their gains continues to define Southern politics.
In the North, black citizens could vote but were walled off in ghettoes that sociologist E. Franklin Frazier called “the cities of destruction.” When Federal Housing Authority loans and other tax-supported federal policies built the American middle class after World War II, government and business alike cut African Americans out of the home-mortgage market by means legal and extra-legal. These ranged from FHA policies that refused to sell blacks property except in “black” areas to bank redlining to mob violence. African Americans who scraped together a down payment could only buy homes in deteriorating areas where their property could never appreciate. This slammed the door to the American middle class. Whites, meanwhile, could rely upon a credit system supported by the federal government, in which their monthly payments built equity that could send children to college or launch a small business.
Jim Crow, of course, is dead, killed by the relentless labors of African American activists and their comparatively rare white allies. Black poverty rates have gone down. A tentative but slowly growing black middle class makes its way carefully from paycheck to paycheck. But white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households. The gap between black and white households is roughly the same as it was in 1970. African Americans remain the most segregated group in America, creating what Coates calls “the concentration of disadvantage,” which is particularly devastating when it comes to the racially-isolated, high-poverty schools that most black children attend.
Meanwhile, Brown v. Board of Education, the most touted and least respected Supreme Court ruling in U.S. history, is dead. American schools are re-segregating quickly and apparently inexorably; this despite that one of the most consistent findings in American education research over the past 50 years is that mixed schools work better for everyone. Meanwhile, Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act. Only hours later, conservative Southern state legislatures began passing laws designed to suppress voter turnout.
This brings me to the single most striking thing about Professor Hough’s statement, once you get past the surface outrages like “the Asians” and “the blacks”–the deep pessimism of Hough’s racial views. He doesn’t think we need to talk more about race relations; in fact, we need to talk less, he says. In fact, the only way across the chasm carved by white supremacy is intermarriage; Hough judges the success of minority groups by their relative likelihood to marry white people. His crude history of American ethnic politics is more or less the story of how various groups became regarded as “white.” For Asian Americans and for African Americans, this is particularly crucial, since unlike the Poles and the Irish, they do not outwardly appear to be white.
Only likeness, Hough believes, will bring peace; difference will always lead toward strife. For him and many other Americans, blackness, not white supremacy, is the problem. “The Asians,” in his mind, seem to be in the process of becoming white, and this cheers Hough. If only “the blacks” could follow their example.
The irony here is that, although Hough does tend to blame “the blacks” for their own predicaments, his arguments also concede, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, that white supremacy is so pervasive and endemic to American life that all African Americans can do is keep their heads down and literarily blend in.
Like questionable police shootings of young black men, these outrageous racial moments occur on a regular basis. Usually our discussion of them gets us no further than a sandbox scuffle over the persistence of racism: “Is not” v. “Is too.” Progressives see any acknowledgement that racism still exists as a political success, and the indignation fades until next time. Once these residual pockets of racism are eradicated, once everyone learns the sensitive way to talk to and about one another, all will be well with the American experiment. Meanwhile, deep in most people’s craw there is a desperate feeling that this American dilemma will never get better. Hough is not the only one.
This racial pessimism, curiously enough, marks American life at a moment when interracial grassroots politics are well on their way to an all-time high. In North Carolina, where Professor Hough lives, the “Moral Monday” protests have engaged scores of thousands of citizens, as many of them white as black, in a movement with strong black leadership; this spreading movement has been more interracial than the civil rights movement of the 1960s. All over the nation, the #BlackLivesMatter movement swells. Though the name would seem to suggest a black movement, and it does have strong, progressive black leadership, #BlackLivesMatter has been an interracial affair almost from the beginning, as even a cursory examination of crowd shots from most of the protests will show.
There is plenty of cause for both tempered optimism and some well-grounded pessimism, if not quite the sort that Jerry Hough unknowingly espouses. What #BlackLivesMatter is saying to the country needs to be heard, especially with regard to how America treats young African American men. Recently Ta-Nahesi Coates, in his profoundly important article in The Atlantic, “The Case For Reparations,” reports on a Chicago activist who lives in one of the city’s crumbling low-income communities: “The message the young black boy receives from his country, Billy Brooks says, is ‘”You ain’t shit. You not no good. The only thing you are worth is working for us. You will never own anything. You are not going to get an education. We are sending your ass to the penitentiary.” They’re telling you no matter how hard you struggle, no matter what you put down, you ain’t shit.’”
Professor Hough reveals more than he intends to, but, in the end, he is just another voice in the chorus.
Timothy B. Tyson is Senior Research Scholar at Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University. He is the author of Radio Free Dixie: Robert Williams and the Roots of Black Power and Blood Done Sign My Name: a True Story.