Columnist critiques the critics

By Jon Monteith

Due to the placement of my column this week, I am merely the 16,000th person to share my thoughts on last week’s “Racism, Power and Privilege at UIUC” forum via the DI opinions page. The editorial board even went as far as writing a follow-up editorial supporting its original boycott of the event, arguing that it “yielded little productive dialogue on race issues.” And, after all, nothing encourages productive dialogue quite like an editorial stating, “We told you so!”

What really caught my eye, though, was the following statement from the editorial board: “The forum was a missed opportunity for the substantive change that the event’s organizers hoped for.”

A few paragraphs later, the board largely attributes the failure of the event to the organizers’ decision to present a set of demands for progressive reform, in addition to “declaring a deadline for the administration to act and threatening vague consequences if the demands are not met.” These actions, in the eyes of a majority of the board members, amounted to “taking a combative stance” and “fighting hostility with hostility.”

Not exactly.

As the organizers explained before the forum’s question-and-answer segment began, some of the same calls for reform were made 15 years ago, and the administration did nothing. Is it so unreasonable, then, for the organizers of the event to expect that a deadline might be necessary to get things moving?

As for “threatening vague consequences,” as someone who attended the forum and paid close attention to what was said, this depiction seems a little dishonest. The organizer’s exact words were, “If we don’t hear and see a response … you will hear from us, like you are today and like you will continue to … and we’re not gonna let this drop, because we’ve seen it happen on this campus.”

The leaders of the coalition sponsoring this event were saying, in effect, that they’re not going away. They will keep lobbying for change until the administration makes an honest effort to make these progressive reforms a reality, and their relentless advocacy is critical because the administration has developed a reputation for ignoring their requests.

How vague and threatening! Perhaps the members of the editorial board should snap out of their paranoia and acquaint themselves with the obvious: as Frederick Douglass reminds us, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and never will.”

Please take the administrators down from your shoulders for a moment. Characterizing them as a helpless panel trying their best to listen to a pack of crazies is disingenuous, and misses the broader point; what’s the use in technically listening to questions without having the moral leadership to provide up-front, considerate responses?

For instance, an audience member asked President B. Joseph White to articulate his views on Chief Illiniwek. President White responded by saying, “I have chosen not to speak publicly about my views on the Chief … I want you to understand this: I have a completely clear conscience with regard to my position and my actions on Chief Illiniwek.”

Translation: I don’t have to share my position on the Chief with you, even if most of you believe that it is a racist symbol that is diminishing your self-esteem, and your experience at this University (which I am responsible for leading.) And he’s right. President White does not have to interpret his duties as president to include serving as a moral leader who stands up against a symbol that thousands of students recognize as racist, regardless of the current popular opinion. But a courageous leader wouldn’t be afraid to do so, and his reward would be coming down on the right side of history, no matter how much grief he suffers for it.

I can’t stop people from looking back on this forum as a failure, but let’s at least be honest in our criticism of it.

We can’t ignore the evasiveness of administrative rhetoric as an influential factor, nor is it appropriate to paint the organizers as impatient and hostile after waiting for over a decade for change to come.