“Read Books Written By Those You Disagree With”

By Rachel Frank

I am a student in Professor Dry’s Race, Sex and the Constitution course and for my presentation at the Spring Student Symposium reading a paper I wrote for the class, I’ve been called a racist. First, in beyond the green’s preview of the presentation, Lily Andrews wrote, “To watch out for (MAY be offensive): ‘Race and American Political Regime’ discusses colorblindness. Murray Dry has a BAD reputation around racism….” This provocative piece of advertisement brought a lot of students to our presentation, inevitably including those who would misunderstand our words. Then came an anonymous essay on MiddBeat, called, “A Counter Narrative to ‘Race, Sex, and the U.S. Constitution’ Symposium Presentation.” This piece claimed that the presenters vastly misunderstood race and racism and that it is a great crime to do anything but automatically support programs like affirmative action. In response, I would like to express my overall concern with the potential effects of shutting out opposing voices as well as address a few misunderstandings in Anonymous’ piece.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard is: “Read books written by those you disagree with.” With similar sentiment, I would first like to ask potential critics to avoid pre-judging, especially with judgments that are poorly founded and revolve around something so fickle as a reputation.

To address Anonymous’ post, the papers we read presented a wide range of views and were put together by a group of students that have dedicated a whole semester to educating themselves about race and sex in America. We have read the liberal books and the conservative ones. We have read their critics. We have had discussions and written essays and striven to get to the heart of these important issues. We came to the presentation with thoughtful insights gleaned from a lot of reading and hard thinking. Yet, we were told we misunderstood racism. Further, we never had a chance at understanding it because we are not ourselves the minorities of which we spoke. I would posit, to return to my previous point about shutting out discussion, that to truly understand things, you must fully educate yourself. One should not simply read Michelle Alexander, but also read her critics and her challengers. They may not say what you want to hear, but they will expand your thinking and round your opinions.

The particular statement, “All ideas do not need to be entertained,” concerns me. Rather than censor ourselves so quickly, we should instead foster all productive types of student discourse.

I feel morally and intellectually compelled to address the assertion that “Racism is colorblindness.” The sole dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson (the now-overturned case that upheld segregation in the south), Justice Harlan, wrote, “Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Harlan was the only Justice to object the blatant and real racism behind Jim Crow — so why does Anonymous reject his view? If racism is colorblindness, can we never defeat racism, defined this way, except by guaranteeing permanent entitlements based on skin color? That’s antithetical to the conventional, sensible understanding of racism. Today, colorblindness seems to be the goal of the Supreme Court, which accepts affirmative action today, but looks to a future in which it will be unnecessary. Justice O’Connor, writing an opinion supporting affirmative action, but with a twenty-five year sunset, said “[A]ll governmental use of race must have a logical end point.” The Court has not accepted colorblindness categorically, as many Justices do view affirmative action as problematic. Given the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the use of race is what must be defended, not the absence of racial preferences. If one is to reject both the voices that stood up against Jim Crow in 1896 and our honorable justices of today, it must be done with credible proof and well-thought out arguments.

I would also like to ask the Middlebury student body: Why has it become impossible to have a full discourse about race without being labeled a racist? I cannot but think the only remaining recourse to respond to those you disagree with after you forgo the informed, educated response is to call people names. I suppose it is easier to write us off as racists rather than sitting down and thinking together. And, when you fling names on the Internet, you can convince others we are racists, too, all while keeping your identity secret. Sounds like a pretty good set-up. But I ask you to not take the easiest, loudest route. Do not simply paint us as misinformed monsters. Read with us. Talk with us. Do not rush to be offended or prove us wrong. Be open to the possibility that your thoughts may evolve, as will ours.