Racism Vs. Academic Freedom

Against the Current, No. 32, May/June 1991

Elizabeth Anderson

RECENT UNIVERSITY-BASED anti-racist activities have prompted a media backlash: Attacks on campus racism are derided as assaults on freedom of speech, as left-1st attempts to enforce “politically correct” views on everyone else.(1) Mainstream publications offer little, if any, space to anti-racist activists to rebut these charges.

This is not the first time oppositional groups have been denied the opportunity to present their own case in the mass media. Although such bias is incompatible with the news media’s purported commitment to objective inquiry, it is defended by claiming that media access is, after all, a commodity, and so available only to those rich enough to pay for it or powerful enough to influence it.

This reply makes a mockery of the notion that “the free market of ideas” can be expected to promote objective inquiry, as opposed to beliefs favorable to the interests of the rich and powerful. But it also highlights a contrast between the professed aims of academic inquiry and of “free speech” in the marketplace, and hence also between the institutional embodiments of “freedom of speech” within and without academia. For the academy does ostensibly commit itself to an ideal of objective inquiry. In which people acquire beliefs because they are supported by argument and evidence, not because they are backed up by money and power.

The academy, unlike privately owned media, has no market excuse for systematically depriving subordinate groups—such as the poor, people of color, and women—of an effective voice. This contrast between the underlying points of freedom of speech in the academy and in OW market, however blurred in practice, provides a key for understanding the directions a campus-based anti-racist movement should take.

What Kind of Freedom?

The campus anti-racist agenda is and ought to be deeply by an ideal of academic freedom which is distinct from the generic notion of “freedom of speech.” That the purposes of speech and hence the freedoms it properly enjoys are different within and without the academy is uncontroversial. Lying and faking research results are constitutionally protected activities outside the academy, as long as they are not used for commercial fraud, libel, or slander, yet they are punishable within the academy.

This difference reflects the fact that the market seeks profitable speech, whereas the academy is supposed to seek true and reasoned speech. Campus-based activists can strengthen their anti-racist agenda by linking their attacks on racist speech to the specific alms of academic freedom.

Outside the academy, legal support for punishing racist epithets must be found in such positions as the “fighting words” doctrine, as Alan Wald argues. The possibility of prosecuting such speech then depends upon showing that the epithets are not merely “offensive” but virtual incitements to violence. (Alternatively, an analogy can be drawn between racist harassment and sexual harassment in the form of obscene phone calls, which are also constitutionally unprotected.)

Inside the academy, racist epithets appear not only in these guises, but as symptoms of the much larger problem of systematically distorted communication between whites and people of colon Systematically distorted communication occurs whenever class, race, gender, or other relations of domination influence a community’s acceptance of claims, its assignment of burdens of proof, and the quality of attention it pays to different speakers and to different human interests, problems, and experiences.(2)

Wherever this occurs, subordinated groups occupy a status of second-class academic citizens and enjoy a lesser degree of educational opportunity than dominant groups. In depriving subordinated groups of equal freedom and opportunity to influence the course of inquiry, the academy also undermines the very goal for which academic freedom is supposedly instituted—the pursuit of an understanding of the world supported by reasoned argument and evidence rather than power, prejudice, and superstition.

The public meaning and effect of assaulting a person of color with a racist epithet in a campus context is to attack the recipient’s legitimacy and power to engage in inquiry on equal terms with others in the university—to command the respect that is a prerequisite for her contribution to be taken seriously, and to command the self-confidence needed to get on with the project.

Racist Speech Attacks Freedom

Recent events at the University of Michigan illustrate various ways in which racist speech on campus constitutes an attack on people’s academic freedom.

The attack may take the form of a direct threat to the presence of people of color on campus, as in a poster once plastered over the campus that declared that “niggers ought to be hanging from trees.” Or it could effectively deter inquiry through humiliating retort, as when, in a political science class, a white student derided a Black student’s question by calling Blacks ignorant Or it could constitute an attack on the importance of studying phenomena of racism and oppression, as when students in a European history class loudly complained about having to study the Holocaust, since what did they care if the Jews had been gassed?

Such remarks do not constitute “inquiry,” but assaults on the conditions for freedom of inquiry itself. As such, they are no less deserving of punishment by the university than other betrayals of academic freedom such as plagiarism, fraudulent research, and tampering with other people’s experiments or computer files.

Of course, care must be exercised in determining when a remark undermines the background conditions for free and open discussion, and when it constitutes an offensive but sincere attempt by someone with racist beliefs to understand the reasoning behind rival views. Open discussion of racist beliefs is a painful but necessary part of anti-racist education, and must not be stifled by fears that any potentially offensive remark relating to race might be punished. An academic policy that punishes racist epithets would have to clearly distinguish harassment, abuse, and other acts of domination from sincere but offensive inquiry.

This is not a very difficult task; contextual clues such as posture, tone of voice, responsiveness to challenges, surrounding cautionary remarks, and the presence of a specific target of attack can aid the interpretation of remarks, and be used by sincere inquirers to signal their intention to engage in reasoned discussion rather than abuse of others.

Systematically Distorted Communication

Racist speech is especially objectionable in the university. As a form and cause of systematically distorted communication, it denies an equal education to people of color and undermines objective inquiry. But sporadic and intentional outbursts of racist speech constitute only a small part, although perhaps the most overt, hateful, and immediately painful part, of such practices.

A unified and coherent anti-racist agenda should frame its response to racist speech in the context of the far more pervasive, systematic, institutionalized, and unconscious (and hence more damaging and resistant) educational practices that silence, exclude, ignore, distort, or drown out the voices of people of color and other oppressed groups in society.

The aim of the campus struggle should be to eliminate the influence of race-, gender- and class-based power relations on whose voices, interests, questions, problems, experiences, and presuppositions are taken seriously in teaching and research. A brief survey of a few practices that systematically distort academic communication—in admissions policies, pedagogy, research methodology, the academic hierarchy of disciplines and fields, hiring practices, and the specific presuppositions and concepts of research programs in different fields—suggests how daunting a challenge this is:

—Teachers habitually pay most personal attention to white male students, and least attention to Black female students. They thereby give higher priority to the educational interests and problems of white men, and inculcate unequal expectations in students as to what demands they may make on teachers’ attentions.

—Teachers expect and thus demand more from white students than from students of color, and more from male than female students in fields such as mathematics. Since teacher expectations are an important factor in student performance, and the history of performance is an important factor determining a student’s access to more and higher quality education, racist and sexist expectations constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy.

—Lower-class students and students of color are more often placed in lower educational “tracks” in high school or earlier. Universities thus inherit a pool of students whose “qualifications” are already shaped by institutional racism and classism. While universities have taken some steps to remedy these problems in the admissions process, they remain ill-equipped to deal with the educational problems and perspectives of students from subordinate groups, since their educational programs have been designed for privileged students.

—Having been taught that their opinions are important and that they are entitled to express them, white, economically privileged men feel entitled to “take over” classroom discussions, expect others to defer to their opinions, and aggressively interrupt people of color and women more than they are interrupted.

—The “attributional fallacy” inclines people to give more respect and credence to opinions ascribed to white men, or uttered by lighter-skinned, taller, lower-voiced persons of whatever race or gender. Thus, even when persons of color and women get a word in edgewise, their opinions are discounted by race and gender, or by factors highly correlated with race and gender.

—The common conservative methodological principle that new theories “fit” with what is already “known” imparts a bias in favor of investigations that cohere with past racist and sexist theories, and with racist and sexist background assumptions of dominant groups in society, whose opinions are more salient and appealing to most researchers than those of oppressed groups. Similarly, the common emphases on expanding the predictive range of established theories and on finding a unitary research program, rather than on criticizin4 the background assumptions of theories and developing rival research programs, impart a bias in favor of theories that have been developed for a long time, regardless of the ideological interests that made them salient and appealing in the first place, and discourages investigation into these interests.(3)

—The academy continues to resist opening up its professorial ranks to members of groups with background assumptions and interests contrary to those of dominant groups in society.

Yet the history of each discipline touching on human interests shows that to expose and criticize the influence of race-, class-, and gender-based assumptions in inquiry, research itself must be conducted by people who do not share these assumptions and who have an people of color on campus, anti-racist activists seek not only to provide equal educational opportunities to all, but to realize the conditions under which, for the first time, academic inquiry can proceed undistorted by racist ideology and racist power relations.(4)

Of course, it doesn’t appear this way to the mainstream academy and media. They are convinced that perfect academic freedom already exists for everyone on campus, and that the anti-racist movement threatens to inject politicized motivations into the process of inquiry, thereby distorting its basic neutrality and objectivity. There is one element of truth in this portrayal of the campus anti-racist movement It is politically motivated—that is, it is motivated by civic concerns. Its aim is to realize two basic civic conditions required for all to enjoy academic freedom: that research and educational opportunities be equally provided to all, and that members of the academy engage in inquiry undistorted by relations of racist domination and subordination.


  1. See, for example, -Taking Offense,’ Newsweek, December 24, 1990, 48-54.
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  2. The phrase is borrowed from Jurgen Habermas, without specific commitment to his analysis of communication. See “On Systematically Distorted Communication,” Inquiry 13 (1971): 205-218.
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  3. See P. Feyerabend, Against Method, rev. ed.  (New York. Verso Press, 1988) and Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1990) for critiques of the conservatism of scientific methodology.
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  4. Wald discusses this concern.
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May-June 1991, ATC 32