Race at Emory: It’s Not Rocket Science

With searing criticism still hounding President James Wagner, Emory officials are scrambling to mend various racial ills on campus.

The sense of urgency to bring some semblance of closure recalls a book written by Martin Luther King more than four decades ago. The book’s title raises a critical question: Where Do We Go From Here?

Included among the rumored ideas under consideration at Emory are the usual approaches: campus-wide sensitivity training and interracial discussion groups. Those are likely to be followed, of course, by reams of new reports, which may – or may not – be read or acted upon.

Anyone who has been here more than a decade, as I have, knows that particular drill by now. They also know that Emory’s approach to challenges regarding race relations is to treat it like rocket science.

Yes, Wagner penned an article praising a historic compromise among colonial white men and virtually dismissing the humanity of African Americans. And sure, many people rightfully remain astonished that the president of a premier university could do such a thing.

However, as an African American who encounters such thinking on a routine basis, one question is resounding in my head: As far as solutions to the school’s recurring racial fumbles, really, what’s the mystery here?

To put it bluntly, Wagner, though genuinely likeable and highly intelligent, is the product of a Eurocentric education. That educational model was built on the assumption of white supremacy. As Wagner’s misstep illustrated, the old school model still promotes white privilege. The distorted logic Wagner applied in the now infamous Emory Magazine article reinforced the myth that whites are the norm. By extension, other ethnic groups are mere aberrations.

So, really, where do we go when the university president harbors such educational blind spots?

Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe the solutions to some of Emory’s nagging racial difficulties require a little common sense, blended with the lessons that can be learned from history.

True history.

A point of disclosure: My take on this whole affair stems partly from my role as a lecturer in the African American Studies Department. I enjoy that role, but to be honest, I have always found one standing contradiction to be quite disturbing: On the one hand, all students in this country are required to complete American history courses at some point in their educational careers. On the other hand, African American history is considered distinct and optional learning.

Therein lies the problem, and, I might add, the potential solution.

The fact is, America would not be what it is today if it were not for the long, tortured institution of slavery. Despite all the boasting about our meritocracy, this country’s founders built its enormous wealth largely on the sweaty backs of blacks. In that sense, slavery is indispensible to the American story.

It is no secret that the Eurocentric versions often play down – or overlook – that vital piece of information. In that sense, students enjoy the privilege not to know. As a result, many students (and obviously administrators) arrive and leave Emory believing America is strictly a white creation.

Maybe that’s why we can count on some racial transgression surfacing on campus virtually every year. If not affirmative action resentments expressed on the Dooley Show, the offense comes from students donning blackface, or some fraternity flaunting a confederate flag.

There is always some racial insult to confront because, despite all the concentrated brainpower on campus, we have not figured out a way to counteract the blind spots inherent in the Eurocentric educational model.

Emory boasts a nationally acclaimed research library on black Americans. Still, most students likely go through their entire college careers and never once engage in a multicultural learning experience.

If we are to address the broader implications of Wagner’s mistake, we cannot rely solely on old approaches to stubborn racial problems. To truly unload this albatross, we must dare to be different moving forward.

Any solution must consider the weight of this single piece of logic: If racism was institutionally built into the fabric of our educational system over centuries, then it stands to reason that equally strong institutionalized efforts are required to weed it out.

Training and discussions are fine, but Emory needs to firmly commit to a progressive 21st century agenda. Which means we need to rethink the standards on what it means to be an educated person in an increasingly diverse nation.

Such considerations can only lead to a serious evaluation of racist structures, beginning with a genuine openness to curriculum change.

Certainly, such an agenda would not satisfy the need for immediate fixes to some racial problems. People rightly want to see signs of progress, and soon.

But over the long haul, the lack of a multicultural learning requirement is an educational gap we can no longer leave exposed.

Nathan McCall is a professor in the Department of African American Studies.

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