Prof. James Sherley's hunger strike and charges of racism against MIT have catalyzed a welcome public dialogue on race relations. We must be careful, however, to ensure balance as we take advantage of this opportunity to improve community standards and understanding: in addition to examining the extent and effect of racism, both within and beyond minority populations, we must also be willing to discuss the problematic role of race-baiting and hyperbole within the public realm.
Race-baiting, in this context, is defined as the injection of race as a theme or central issue into a debate where it does not bear any significant relevance. Like racism itself, race-baiting is rarely clear-cut, and falls along a continuum. On one end, an individual or organization may maliciously exploit a public desire to correct institutional racism. A less extreme approach may involve the purposeful use of hyperbole as a means of associating a legitimate concern over a relatively minor racist act with extreme historical examples. Least maliciously of all, race-baiting may be no more than a subconscious expression of a feeling of persecution or resentment engendered elsewhere. In all of these cases, guilt and fear, rather than rational argument, are used as tools to force the opposing side to concede.
It can be difficult to disambiguate true cases of racism from race-baiting, a fact often exploited by politicians. Some charges of racism as an underlying motivation can be reasonably defended, such as the notorious "Playboy party" advertisement that arguably played on racist sentiments against African-American Senate candidate Harold Ford, Jr. in 2006. Others, however, fall apart upon even a cursory inspection, such as Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney accusing police of being racist when they responded to her not walking through a metal detector while entering the capitol, or Senator Joseph Biden being accused of racism for describing fellow Senator Barack Obama as articulate. A more general example of race-baiting would be the accusations of racism leveled against all those taking a strong stance on illegal immigration.
Although politics is characterized by a level of doublespeak beyond the norm, the examples cited above are not atypical of the types of race-baiting found more generally in society. Consider the following example from my own experience within the MIT community. The Graduate Student Council recently discussed the idea of converting the GSC's diversity committee from an ad-hoc to a standing (permanent) committee; I attended the meeting as a former President of the Council who has also worked to promote MIT's recruitment of underrepresented minorities. Although I supported the laudable sentiment and objectives of the proposal, I also found valid arguments against it, and expressed my concerns. To my surprise, a number of GSC representatives approached me only after the meeting to express their own reasons for believing the proposal flawed. They explained that they had not raised their objections publicly during the open debate for fear of drawing accusations of racism.
The Sherley case itself presents another example within our community. By equating the response of the administration to his hunger strike with the beating and lynching of civil rights activists in the '60s, Sherley is guilty of using racial hyperbole to manipulate the emotions of his audience and further his own objectives, whether they be as personal as getting tenure or as noble as fighting racism everywhere.
Ironically, individuals who practice race-baiting often cause themselves more harm than good. Such techniques may successfully quell dissenting viewpoints, but they also create resentment among those who have been strong-armed into silence. This resentment, with time, contributes to unnecessarily negative views of the minority community at large. Minorities fighting racism cannot afford to squander the good will of those sympathetic to their cause, thus winning the battle by losing the war.
Of course, an individual may incorrectly ascribe racism as a motivation for an offense because he truly believes in what he is saying, not necessarily because he is race-baiting. This fact highlights the importance of understanding that no dialogue is one-sided: responsibility lies with all parties involved to express their views openly, respectfully and honestly. This duty applies as much to those who disagree with accusations of racism as to those who level the accusations. Only by refusing to kowtow to the fear of being called a racist can those who sincerely disagree help foster a productive dialogue.
MIT routinely conducts surveys to gauge the sentiment of minorities in the service of promoting a safe and welcoming environment for all members of the community. Clearly it is valuable to determine whether individuals feel intimidated by attitudes towards their race. Is it not also valuable to ascertain how often people feel intimidated by the threat of being stigmatized as racist for expressing views that are less than politically correct?
Unfortunately, people often do not have the courage of their convictions to be willing to voice their opposition to an idea if they believe that doing so will be result in their being called a racist. Consequently, the true racists — those who disparage or disagree with the minority based on their race and not their arguments — are disproportionately represented among those who do speak out. This gives the false impression that most of those who do disagree are in fact racist, which justifiably angers the minority. It also makes those who are not racist, but disagree with the minority's arguments, even more hesitant to participate in the debate because they don't want to be associated with those who have spoken out.
To the extent that they both hinder free speech, discourage open debate, and result in the judging of individuals based not on their merit, racism and race-baiting are equally destructive to the fabric of our society. If we wish to heal the terrible scar of racial inequality in our society, we must have the courage to confront them both.