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February 15, 2013

The Campus That Says Having White Skin is Unfair

Superior, Wisconsin is at the far northwest tip of the state and the population is overwhelmingly white. There have never been any racial troubles in the area. Nevertheless, officials at the University of Wisconsin branch campus have become "sponsors" of a group calling itself the "Unfair Campaign." The campaign is built around the assertion that institutional racism is the explanation for all manner of social disparities, such as health outcomes. It provokes people with images of white faces with slogans written on them, such as "Is white skin really fair skin?"

College students at UW-Superior and residents of the city don't think of themselves as having any racial prejudices, so it's necessary for the "Unfair" advocates to beam such mantras as "It's hard to see racism when you're white" and "Ignore racism and it won't go away" at them. Back in the 1960s, that was called "consciousness raising." What it amounts to nurturing absurdly tendentious ideas that sensible people would never entertain on their own.

University officials are uneasy over the bad publicity they're getting over "Unfair" and put out a press release where they try to spin it as an academic exercise, writing, "We have an obligation to engage in difficult conversations about complex, even controversial social issues with a goal of finding workable solutions." University spokeswoman Lynn Williams said that the campaign is "an opportunity on our campus to talk about all privilege and to create conversation."

"Unfair" hasn't been turned into a course on campus and school officials state that no faculty members "formally instruct students about the campaign." What has happened is that "Unfair" spokespeople have made presentations on campus and some professors have then brought up that material in classes.

What's wrong with that? Isn't it a good thing to "create conversation" and discuss "controversial social issues"? Of course, but colleges should not open themselves to every crank, divisive idea. You can have an academic discussion over the reasons for continuing group disparities without leading with the often-refuted notion that such disparities are due to "white racism." The university could host a debate or forum where competing explanations for group differences could be considered, but for it to embrace "Unfair" as a "community sponsor" is out of line with its academic mission.

If a white supremacist group approached the university, wanting to put up posters depicting non-whites as stupid untermensch and hold lectures about the ways in which the nation is supposedly being dragged down by the undue influence of non-white people, would officials say, "Sure - we want to have difficult conversations"? Of course not. Some conversations are worth encouraging in an intellectual community but others are not.

Academic officials, however, seem unable say "no" to anything purporting to advance "civil rights." The civil rights movement had an important role to play decades ago, but has become an irrelevancy that is desperately searching for new issues to make itself look vibrant, engaged and needed. In fact, there are social issues where the old activism could be useful, foremost among them our poor basic education system and eroding family structure. But in blaming white privilege and institutional racism, "Unfair" is tilting at windmills in an offensive and divisive manner.  

UW-Superior ought to drop its imprimatur.

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Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.