Community Forums, Racial Accusations and Mirroring the Enemy


We’ve all heard about the Salem witch trials. If you go into the scholarship, it turns out there were no witches in Salem — only victims of sorcery accusations. If Salem’s problem with witchcraft did not include actual witches, could Middlebury College’s struggle against racism not include actual racists?

Well, we might have a few racists, or more than a few. But both witchcraft and race have an equal basis in human biology — none. Animosity does not add up to sorcery and genotype/phenotype interactions do not add up to race. But once witchcraft beliefs turn into accusations, and racial beliefs turn into accusations, they share a frightening capacity for justifying intimidation.

Racial accusations in the U.S. have long revolved around conspiracy theories that black people pose a threat to white people. Americans might be less enamored of this and many other conspiracy theories if we realized that they are an updated version of witchcraft accusations.

Accusations of sorcery and of conspiracy have long found receptive audiences for the same reason — they concentrate blame in somebody we already detest. While disasters tend to be produced by many hands, conspiracy theories divert blame away from ourselves and send it in a single, satisfying direction — to a scapegoat. This is why, wherever you go in human affairs, scapegoating will always be a tempting activity.

In Donald Trump’s America, conspiracy accusations ricochet here, there and everywhere. At Middlebury College, they are peering around the corner at our community forums. The administration summons us to these all-campus events so that we can respond to the latest racial emergency.

The most recent are a Title IX allegation of racial profiling and a racist graffiti on a blackboard. The forums are billed as conversations and they are intended to build community. But the subject of racism, and the scale of the gathering, turns them into theatrical occasions. Students denounce their pain and suffering. Caring administrators announce dramatic new measures — to the surprise of other students, faculty and staff who haven’t been consulted.

Over the last two years, administrators have gotten more apologetic, student activists have gotten more accusatory, and the conversation has taken on the air of a tribunal.

The most recent community forum, Nov. 9 in Mead Chapel, focused on President Laurie Patton and Title IX coordinator Sue Ritter, as well as communications veep Bill Burger and a public safety officer (unnamed) who may not have been present. Students asked Patton and Ritter if they were in denial about white supremacy at the college. They also demanded apologies for alleged racial profiling.

As the questions became more personal and insulting, a student leader presided with the assurance of a hanging judge. The core of the audience, mainly students, broke into periodic applause. The margins of the audience, mainly faculty and staff, did a lot less applauding. With the exception of denials and assurances from Patton and Ritter, as well as from general counsel Hannah Ross and a few other administrators, no other sides were voiced.

None of what follows is to deny that local instances of racism require our attention. I’m especially concerned about increasing man-in-the-street animosity toward Middleburians with dark skin. There is also the longstanding problem of classroom and social life majorities that create a hostile milieu for minorities. The college can certainly do more.

What I wish to challenge are racial accusations that are so open-ended that they presume the guilt of the accused. For example, to refute one of the specific accusations against Sue Ritter, I wish to point out that an office staffed by white people is not evidence of white supremacy. If this were the case, then an office staffed by liberals would be evidence of a plot against America. That’s the kind of reductive accusation employed by rightwing conspiracy theorists.

Why would Middlebury student activists, who wish to oppose rightwing conspiracy theorists, employ the same kind of logic as they do? The most obvious answer: a wide range of Americans are entranced by conspiracy theories. What is the most easy-to-swallow version of conspiracy theory for both left and right? Racial classification! What scapegoat is easier to grasp than a bunch of black people or a bunch of white people?

Racial classification presumes that a person’s skin color tells us something important about who they are. It also presumes that a person belongs in the same behavioral category as other people with the same skin color. Both are far from the case.

Consider the following example of how simplistic and localized racial classification is. A Dominican who considers himself white gets on an airplane and flies to New York City, where he is judged to be black and/or Latino. If he then flies to Los Angeles, he will continue to be black, but not Latino in the eyes of this city’s Mexican-American population. If he then flies to Vermont, he will become a person of color. Four different places have four different racial systems.

What counts as blackness or whiteness appears and disappears as a function of assumptions and power differentials that vary enormously from one situation to the next. Everyone has the right to identify yourself as black or white, of color or not. In earlier days, who counted as black or white was enshrined by legal boundaries. Nowadays, who is designated by these labels has become far more unstable. This makes them a treacherous basis for administration and due process.

The superficiality of racial classification isn’t just a trap for racists. It’s also a trap for anti-racists when they make sweeping assumptions about who they represent and who their enemy is. Five days after Charles Murray’s famous visit to our halls, in March 2017, four Middlebury College departments and two programs hosted philosophy professor George Yancy of Emory University. Yancy’s theme was white fear of the black body. His evidence included excruciating details of Jim Crow-era lynchings, hate mail that he’s received after publishing provocative op-eds, and white fascination with black sexual prowess.

As for white people who struggle with racism and claim to overcome it, Yancy informed us, they’re wrong. So what are white people supposed to do? Their only hope, he told us, is to take their clothes off, look in the mirror and fall apart. An alternative approach, he said, is to vomit for two hours. But the best white people can hope for is to become “anti-racist racists” because, he concluded, “to be white is to be racist.”

Part (not all) of the Middlebury audience gave Yancy a standing ovation. What some of us were applauding is arguably a new form of religion organized around race, in which whiteness becomes an ineradicable stain. Like the Christian doctrine of original sin, and John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, white people are stuck with it. All Yancy can suggest for white people is a mental health crisis — but even that isn’t going to liberate them from the curse of whiteness.

Traditional race systems in the U.S. were organized around the stigmatization of dark skin. Yancy seems to be urging us to reorganize ourselves around the stigmatization of fair skin. Judging from the opinions page of The Campus, plenty of people here agree with him, and they have lost patience with objections. If whiteness proves racism, after all, then any protestation of innocence means that you are in denial.

Here returns the parallel with accusations of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, as well as with accusations of liberalism in some of today’s congressional districts. What makes racism, witchcraft, or the liberal conspiracy against America an irrefutable premise is deep distrust and anger, not empirical evidence. Once human beings regard such premises as irrefutable, the only proof needed is suspicion. Anyone who objects is soon under suspicion as well. Formulaic repudiation of witchcraft, liberalism or racism becomes the political litmus test for deciding who is a good person and who is a bad one.

Perversely, the logical result of George Yancy’s “anti-racist racism” will be, not transcending race or leaving it behind us, but a new racial system that reverses the polarity of the old ones. This new system will probably be confined to the college’s prosperous economic niche, but it will continue to provide sinecures for the most clever among us, who will tend to come from the middle and upper classes just as they do now.

Another logical result of our current campaign against race will be more layers of bureaucracy. In social science we call this state-building. The rationales for state-building are always seductive. Conservatives insist that we need protection from external enemies; liberals insist that victim groups need protection from victimizers. Whether you’re obsessed with enemies or victims, the shared idiom is vulnerability, protection, security. In social science we call these dangerization scenarios, and what they produce is audit or surveillance culture.

Both dangerization and surveillance have quite a capacity for spiraling upward in the same paranoid manner as sorcery and racial accusations. The more fears you express, the more investigations of these fears will be required. The more procedures you have, the more violations of these procedures there will be. The more people you hire to fight witches, the more witches they will find.

This is how our anti-racism activists could, contrary to their intentions, be generating rationales for a new regime that will be a larger and more cumbersome version of the one they oppose. It will not be as different as they want it to be.

David Stoll is a professor of anthropology at Middlebury College.

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