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April 25, 2010

A Dose of Poetic Justice at Cornell

By Cathy Young

During a conversation at an academic conference, a professor from an Ivy League school refers to two female graduate students as "black bitches." After the students report the incident, the professor apologizes -- but it takes another two months, and vociferous protests from the campus black community, for the university officials to acknowledge the issue publicly, announce mild sanctions against the professor, and state that an investigation was underway.

This is a true story currently unfolding at Cornell University. It is a story with a twist: the offending professor is himself black and teaches in the Africana Studies department, and the incident occurred at a conference on black intellectuals. And, in yet another twist that some have called karmic, the professor, Grant Farred, has now become a target of a rabid campaign that has all the hallmarks of a politically correct witch-hunt -- four years after he was at the forefront of a similar campaign at Duke University during the now-infamous rape hoax in which three white lacrosse team members were accused of assaulting a black stripper at a party.

Professor Farred's recent gaffe, while hardly commendable, seems to have been little more than a tacky attempt at humor -- humor which, compounding the irony, was probably rooted in the identity politics of black "authenticity" expressed through vulgar slang. Farred had invited the women, both of them his advisees, to a February 5-6 conference at the University of Rochester titled "Theorizing Black Studies: Thinking Black Intellectuals." The women arrived late, walking into the conference room in the middle of a panel. After the session ended, Farred came up to them, thanked them for making the drive to Rochester and then added, lowering his voice, "When you both walked in, I thought, 'Who are these black bitches?'"

Afterwards, the two women (who have remained anonymous) approached Farred and told him they had been offended by his remark. Farred immediately apologized and told them he had meant no harm. Unappeased, the women talked about the incident to other Africana graduate students and reported it to several faculty members. Eventually, it came to the attention of Professor Salah Hassan, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center (ASRC). An investigation was launched, and Farred was removed from his position as Director of Graduate Studies in the ASRC.

On April 12, The Cornell Daily Sun carried an open letter signed by 66 Cornell alumni, expressing "horror and outrage" at Farred's comment, which they called "intolerable and reprehensible," and excoriating the leadership of Cornell and the ASRC for remaining "essentially silent in response to an incident of this magnitude."

The outraged alums asserted that Farred's comment had "created a hostile working and learning environment" to such an extent that "many students ... no longer feel safe even entering the Africana Center."

A front-page article in the paper on the same day contained more hyperbolic rhetoric about "gender oppression" and "a culture of fear and terror rooted in male chauvinism." One female professor who spoke out in denunciation of patriarchy at the Africana Center did so anonymously "for fear of retributive action."

One could feel some sympathy for the embattled Professor Farred, whose crucifixion hardly seems proportionate to his crime. (In the midst of the firestorm, he was asked not to participate in the celebration of the Africana Center's 40th anniversary). But Farred's past at Duke, detailed by K.C. Johnson on the Durham-in-Wonderland blog, makes his ordeal seem like a rather satisfying case of poetic justice.

As Johnson points out, Farred, then an associate professor of literature at Duke, was one the most hardcore members of the "Group of 88" -- signers of a statement that described the alleged assault as an example of pervasive racism and sexism at Duke and praised the campus demonstrators who had distributed "wanted" posters of the "rapists."

In October 2006, Farred penned an op-ed for the Durham Herald-Sun deploring the "secret racism" underlying the campus reaction to the rape case. Referring to the Duke students who had taken to wearing armbands inscribed with the numbers of the three accused players and the word "Innocent", Farred wrote: "What is it precisely that that these three players, and the lacrosse team in general, are 'innocent' of? Racism? Underage drinking? Hiring sex workers under a false name? Homophobia?"

Farred was particularly incensed that Duke students were registering to vote in Durham to help oust District Attorney Mike Nifong: their goal, he wrote, was "to repair the damage done to historic white male privilege by voting against a DA vigorous, perhaps even questionable, in his efforts to prosecute the 'innocent.'"

Later on, when North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper proclaimed that the three players were innocent, Farred denounced the decision in a talk at Williams College where he was then a visiting professor. His argument, cloaked in much impenetrable verbiage, boiled down to the claim that, whatever the facts of the specific case, the accused men and their teammates were guilty of racism and "white privilege." He dramatically asserted that there was "a hidden hint of terror in the language of the law." Would that be the same terror he is now accused of perpetuating at Cornell with an ill-advised attempt to banter, rap- or hip-hop-style, with two female graduate students?

It is ridiculous and pathetic to see grown women, graduate students at one of the country's most prestigious universities, claim fainting spells over a crude joke followed by a prompt apology -- and an entire department tarred with the brush of misogyny as a result. But, to quote a famous white male, "'Tis sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard."

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Cathy Young is a Contributing Editor at Reason magazine.



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