Banning Any Discussion of the KKK

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A janitor at the University of Indiana at Purdue is in their continuing education program, trying to improve his lot in life on the side. He reads during his break time. One book he reads is called Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. It's not exactly favorable to the KKK, but it does include their name in the title.

Somehow the university thought it was ok to ban him from reading this book during his breaks [hat tip: David Bernstein], because there were black people around him, and they were offended that the book mentions the KKK. Here is the statement from the affirmative action office on why this counts as racial harassment:

"You demonstrated disdain and insensitivity to your coworkers who repeatedly requested that you refrain from reading the book which has such an inflammatory and offensive topic in their presence...you used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your Black coworkers."

First of all, how could someone possibly think that it's immoral to read a book that's highly critical of the KKK while in the presence of a black person? Second, it's not as if he was reading it aloud. All they had any access to was the fact that he was reading it. Third, even if it's immoral to read something in the presence of someone else, how does that give the university a good reason to ban it. It's not as if he was waving the book around and saying anything to anyone else about it. He merely had the book and was reading it. Fourth, why would they want to give the appearance that they're hindering a janitor, who does some of the dirtiest jobs at the university, from getting his education? It doesn't reflect all that well on them. Fifth, they accuse him of being insensitive and expressing disdain for his co-workers, when he's the one who tried to explain the book's content to several people who refused to listen to him and insisted that anything even remotely discussing the KKK is offensive. How backwards is that?

Well, they recanted while pretending to clarify their position. Some higher-up must have realized how silly the whole thing was.

I don't spend a lot of time harping on this point, but this is a pretty good instance of something I've tried to motivate a few times before. There is certainly plenty of room for improvement in how sensitive white people are to black people's experiences, and a lot of offense can occur that isn't intended. Nevertheless, it only hurts that cause to insist on offense over stupid things like this. The guy was reading a book whose very title shows that it's not in support of the KKK. It's not a good idea to try to get your employer to ban someone from becoming educated about the realities of race relations, something white people certainly need more of.

John McWhorter's stuff on victimology is often dismissed among those on the left who recognize real racial problems (not that McWhorter ever denies those, of course). But he's surely right that there's a culture of complaint about relatively trivial offenses and in many cases immoral complaints about non-offenses like this one. This kind of reaction only fosters the attitude among many on the right that racial problems are caused by black (or in general non-white) people who won't learn to get over it, because it confirms that at least in some cases there's some truth to that.

6 Comments

Because I can't resist.. Talk about judging a book by it's cover!!!

I see and read things that are way more offensive daily on my campus and it is always passed off as "diversity".

What evidence do you have that the offended employees were black?

When you say there is a "culture" of complaint about trivial matters in the black community, what do you mean by "culture"? What's your evidence that such a culture exists?

Allow me to offer an alternative explanation. Perhaps there is a culture of right wing white people inflating relatively infrequent and extraordinary events such as this all out of proportion, dwelling on them, and then discussing them as if they are representative. Perhaps the relevant pattern here isn't the behavior of black people but in what stories strike a chord with white people and get repeated by them to other whites.

As a black person, I find the story ludicrous, as I imagine most people would. My suspicion is either that the co-workers were simply unusually silly people, or that there's more to the story. I hardly understand how this could be construed by anyone as intelligent as yourself as indicative of a "culture of trivial complaints".

Even if you can genuinely identify a complaint that many blacks actually have and that many whites believe are trivial, it's a matter of opinion as to who is right. In such cases we may be dealing with a culture of insensitivity on the part of white people rather than a culture of trivial complaint on the part of black people.

A quick scan of the post I linked to would have ruled out your alternative explanation. The letter to him includes the following paragraph (which one of the posts I linked to gave key excerpts from and another gave in its entirety):

Upon review of this matter, we conclude that your conduct constitutes racial harassment in that you demonstrated disdain and insensitivity to your co-workers who repeatedly requested that you refrain from reading the book which has such an inflammatory and offensive topic in their presence. You contend that you weren't aware of the offensive nature of the topic and were reading the book about the KKK to better understand discrimination. However you used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your Black co-workers. Furthermore, employing the legal "reasonable person standard," a majority of adults are aware of and understand how repugnant the KKK is to African Americans, their reactions to the Klan, and the reasonableness of the request that you not read the book in their presence.

It doesn't sound as if this has anything to do with white conservatives complaining about it. I find the story equally ludicrous, which is why I thought it was worth saying something about. FIRE is a very good organization, and if they're involved with this then you can believe it really happened.

Now if you mean that most black people aren't this ludicrous most of the time, then you're of course right. But the formula "culture of ..." doesn't refer to the dominant mode people are in. The "culture of death" line from pro-lifers doesn't mean people are killing their children and aged all the time. It just means there's a fostering of an environment where that's no more than frowned at. Those who speak of the war on terrorism creating a culture of fear don't mean that the mainstream populace is always fearing and never doing anything else or that every statement a politician makes is fear-mongering. The claim is that politicians sometimes misuse fear for political gain, and no one complains about it.

All I mean when I speak of a culture of complaint is that there are cultural forces present that make it acceptable to exaggerate offenses against oneself or one's group. This is strongly evidences among Christian conservatives who complain about the war on Christmas and call it persecution. Some of what goes on in that discussion is a very minor form of persecution, but it's insulting to those who have been locked up in prison, killed, and tortured for their faith to get fired up about it the way many Americans do. The Anti-Jewish Defamation League occupied the same category when they complained that Mel Gibson's movie was anti-semitic merely because it portrayed characters the way the Bible does. This seems of a piece with all that.

What I was saying was, it wasn't clear that the people who made the official complaint were black. And it wasn't clear to me that whoever made the complaint were asking that the man be fired.

What I meant with the white conservative remark was that there seems to be more conservatives involved in collecting and swapping stories of such complaints than there are black people making such complaints. Chances are that most white conservatives, at least, are only aware of such stories because they've heard them from other conservative white people, or through conservative media. And of course, there's a selection effect here. White conservatives aren't likely to swap stories of incidents of genuine racism amongst themselves. And generally, the express intent in conservative media (talk radio, Fox News, yadda yadda yadda) is to trivialize not just the trivial complaints, but by association all complaints of racism.

So it's not clear to me whether what's really operational in your impression of there being a "culture of exaggerated complaints" among black people is due to such a culture existing or whether it's more a function of a "culture of selective trivializing story swapping" among conservatives. At best, it's both.

I think it is clear from the complaint that they though black people were complaining. I don't know if anyone was asking that he be fired, though. As far as I know, they just wanted not to have to see a book that mentions the KKK even in a very bad light.

I don't know if I disagree with most of your second paragraph. That's why I mentioned the real racial problems worth getting upset about before I criticized these people, and it's why my argument was basically that this sort of complaint trivializes real problems and turns whites/conservatives against noticing real victimhood. I don't think everyone pointing to such things does so to pretend that all complaints of victimhood are like this. McWhorter doesn't. His point is that whites/conservatives are going to use these things as an excuse to ignore real victimhood (of which he considers racial profiling to be one of the major real instances of continued racism). His goal is to stop people who do this sort of thing from fostering the attitude that this is what black complaints of racism are all about. That seems to me to be a worthy goal and a good reason for pointing out such cases from time to time.

The culture of complaining that I'm referring to is not a black thing. It's an American thing. As I pointed out, Christians do it with the war on Christmas. Jews did it with Mel Gibson's movie. Blacks and women are doing plenty of it against each other right now in the Democratic primary race. It's almost a become natural response when someone feels slighted, actually, to complain that it's an attack on whatever group they've formed some identity connection with, when most of the time no such intent is present. It's a lot more widespread than I think you're giving it credit for.

Nicely written and reasoned, Screwtape Jenkins.

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