Friday, September 15, 2006

Math Professor Suspended For Test Question

Erin has the details about a math professor in Washington State who has been suspended for a week because he wrote a question that had something to do with "Condoleeza" throwing a watermelon from a building.

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!


Brook Stevens said...

im not sure if its racist but it sure as hell is stereotypical have you ever seen the Mind of Mencia Sterotype Olympics cuz the black event was watermelon eating haha

allen said...

Condaleeza Rice is conservative not black. And the professor wasn't stereotypic blacks but conservatives of African extraction who are, of course, fair game.

Lillian said...

Frankly, the word 'racist' is misused too much.
In my opinion this was NOT racist. I believe it might have simply been a case of poor taste, at best, but I have heard far far worse among people of color who absolutely HATE the Secretary of State. In fact, I was asked to leave the home of a black family during a visit in Chicago last year, simply because I was defending Secretary Rice and her right to exist as a Republican. Perhaps it was the combination of Condi and myself which initiated the demand that I leave the premises, but certainly it all boiled down to the reality of two black Republican women in da house (although only one actually in the flesh)!
It's hypocritical for black organizations to take offense to this, after their less than friendly acceptance of this brilliant woman...(not myself, but Condi).
I feel that a week without pay is probably the most that the college can get away with, since they are certainly up against the wall with expectations from all concerned, to DO something to this professor.

However, I don't feel he was being 'racist', and I'm not even sure that it was an offensive question.

Let's see...if he had only added that the Secretary drops the watermelon on a group of Al Qaeda standing on the street below, he might not have found himsef in this, uh, disruptive situation.
I don't think Republicans, Democrats, black organizations, the ACLU, or even ultra-lib Washingtonians living in Seattle, would have had any objection to the Secretary dropping the watermelon on the terrorists, foiling their they were most likely about to enter the building to detonate bombs strapped to their chests.

This is not an issue of racism. Clearly this is an issue of language, syntax, and writing. This is an issue of an incomplete sentence and thought...

I say, let the professor keep his weeks pay, accept his apology, and require him to take a college creative writing refresher course in order to improve his word-problem writing skills.

rightwingprof said...

"Condaleeza Rice is conservative not black."

Uhm, would you like to try that again?

allen said...


Racial discrimination is practiced by liberals only after idealogical affiliation is determined. That's why Clarence Thomas and Condi Rice aren't black, they're conservative.

If someone of the proper genetic heritage isn't overtly and rudely conservative then they may be considered black. It can then be assumed that they'll display the proper gratitude to the noble liberal for the racial discrimination that's been injected into federal law as well as most state's laws on their behalf.

There's another even more insidious reason for the bitterness the black conservative engenders; it's a direct repudiation of left wing identity politics.

People all have their pigeon-holes and when we stay in them all is well. But if you refuse to stay neatly bound by your racial, gender or religious pigeon-hole then the entire identity politics spoils system is jeopardized and with it the left's hold on the American political scene.

rightwingprof said...

Okay. Sorry, but I didn't get the statement from what you'd said.

EllenK said...

What I find peculiar is that if instead of Ms. Rice, Jesse Jackson was used as the person in the question, there is no doubt that racism complaints would be lodged and he would lose his job. Political roles are not ethnic roles, although many in power would prefer that they were. I find this type of reasoning offensive. And the question was just plain stupid to begin with. That is what they professor should be charged with, formulating a test using facetious material.

La Maestra said...

Token (?) minority liberal here. I'm not at all a Condi fan (although I don't think she's evil, just incompetent) but I don't think this joke was racist, just a really, really stupid move on the professor's part.

I'd feel the same whether it was Condi, Jesse Jackson, or MLK that the joke was made about.

Ed Darrell said...

And no one's concerned that dropping a watermelon from a building is dangerous and messy, a social problem and hazard rolled into one?

Reminds me a bit of the Janet Jackson incident at the Super Bowl. Mammary glands cause concern, the extreme disrespect shown the U.S. flag by Kid Rock didn't even get a double-take from the conservatives. Worrying about insult doesn't involve worrying about getting things right. It's brainless all the way around.