Is this question racist? Does it represent poor taste and/or judgement? Or do people have their panties in a bunch over nothing?
Honestly, I think the answer to those questions depends on whether Condoleeza represents a Republican or a Democrat. And I only know of one Condoleeza in the world.
As Erin notes, FIRE is on the case.
"Given the reaction of the community and the college, one might think that Ratener was guilty of committing a serious crime, rather than writing an accidentally offensive math problem," stated FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "Everyone involved has acknowledged that Ratener intended no offense, and Ratener even apologized for the question, so what exactly is BCC trying to prove by suspending him? This punishment is not only unfair and a violation of the First Amendment, but also totally unnecessary."
On April 19, Ratener himself issued a public apology, admitting that he had made a mistake but stating that the invocation of a negative racial stereotype was completely unintentional.
Are you telling me that this guy had never heard about the stereotypes related to blacks and watermelons? I find his statement more than a bit disingenuous--but I guess it's possible. Still, did he do anything wrong, and if so, what is the level of severity?
The local Urban League (a black organization, if you didn't know) is, of course, up in arms. But some are defending this professor, either on free speech grounds or on the grounds that the question is based on a stand-up comic routine and therefore is not racist.
I wonder, though, if instead of Condoleeza he had used "Sheniqua" or "Jesse and Al", if he would have so many defenders (outside of FIRE, which is being very consistent). As I said, the severity of the offense is directly proportional to the protected status of the butt of the joke. Condoleeza Rice may be a black woman, but she's a Republican--so it's OK to target her.
Inside Higher Ed notes:
In an apology he issued — to students, colleagues and Secretary Rice — he said that he still should have realized the potential problem and caught it. “The responsibility is ultimately mine alone,” he wrote. In the apology, he talked at length about his sadness and shame at having upset so many people and embarrassed his colleagues. And he repeatedly talked about his commitment to equity and respect for people of all kinds.
The college’s investigation of the matter led to a finding that he should be suspended for a week without pay. The finding noted that in 25 years of teaching at Bellevue, Ratener had never before been accused of racial insensitivity, and that he had apologized for the test question. But the finding also said that Ratener should be held to a high standard as an educator, that he had not attended many of the programs the college offers “regarding cultural issues and the impact of stereotypical thinking on the perpetuation of racism,” that the question had damaged the college’s reputation, and that it had “created disruption.”
Ah yes, the old higher standard. And God forbid a professor says something that causes--gasp!--a disruption.
But if you want to read a very good "discussion" on the topic, click on the Inside Higher Ed link and read the comments. They are well thought out, civil, and insightful. I thought they couldn't get any better after I read the first few--but every one of them had a valuable take on the topic. I encourage you to read them.
My conclusion: if he meant harm at all, it was to a Republican woman, not a black woman. And he probably didn't mean any harm at all--it's conceivable he was just using a celebrity name in a question as a way of making the problem a little less stressful for students.
FIRE's right to get involved.
And if you haven't read the comments at the end of the Inside Higher Ed link, go do so now!