Racism & Conflict at Southern Illinois

Against the Current, No. 118, September/October 2005

Robbie Lieberman

I TEACH ON a campus that prides itself on its racial diversity; Southern Illinois University is consistently ranked in the top ten among predominantly white campuses in graduation rates for African Americans. Yet the university has trouble confronting racial issues, and has no published policy on racial harassment.

This is the context in which a History professor (whom I will call Professor X) instructed his teaching assistants (TAs) to hand out a racist article, to make a point that the civil rights movement went too far and that Black people are now the oppressors. This act confounded his TAs and prompted public criticism from some of his colleagues.

Although the controversy is far from over, with grievances and possible lawsuits pending, a few conclusions are painfully clear: 1) Few people are willing to engage the issue of racism on campus, and 2) when they do raise the issue, the Right is skillful at reframing it to portray conservative white males as victims of ideological repression.

Zebra Killings Recalled

In early April, a day after his weekly meeting with his teaching assistants, Professor X stuffed copies of an article in their mailboxes just hours before their discussion sections were scheduled to meet, and sent them an e-mail about how to address the handout. The article was downloaded from frontpagemag.com, an online journal published by David Horowitz.

Professor X has brought Horowitz to campus twice for public talks and clearly sympathizes with his agenda, which includes attacking universities for their lack of ideological diversity.

The topic for the week was “civil rights and civil disorder.” The article, “Remembering The Zebra Killings,” was about a series of random murders of white people by African Americans that took place in San Francisco in the early 1970s.(1)

The professor edited the handout so as to eliminate the description of the author, James Lubinskas, a well-known white supremacist who is closely tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He also removed a paragraph containing a web-link to an organization, the European American Issues Forum, concerned with publicizing and memorializing the zebra killings. The EAIF web site asks, among other things, whether there is too much Jewish and Zionist influence in the United States.

The professor’s e-mail instructed the TAs to discuss this article in the context of whether the civil rights movement had given “an aura of innocence (or moral immunity) to all black actions, however heinous,” and whether “people like Farrakhan and his more crazed followers take advantage of white permissiveness regarding black behavior.”(2)

The assignment put Professor X’s teaching assistants, two of whom are African American, in an extremely difficult situation. They were reluctant to follow his instructions but concerned about the consequences if they did not do so.

When they researched the article they discovered that its facts were questionable, beginning with the number of victims. The article claims 71 people were murdered, while the highest estimate in other sources is 14, and the U.S. Supreme Court identified 12.

To teach the Lubinskas article as fact would violate professional ethics. Moreover, X’s instructions asked them to teach it from a racist viewpoint. Challenging the material, however, would likely undermine the professor’s authority and subject the TAs to possible disciplinary action.

The TAs did not feel comfortable confronting Professor X, and instead brought their concerns to their faculty advisors and the director of graduate studies. The faculty with whom they met gave them permission to stop handing out the article (after they had passed it out in two sections without reading it). For these faculty members, the main issue was racism, due to the content of the article and the professor’s offensive instructions.

Ideological Battle

The History department has had problems with racism in the past and has not addressed them very well. During the 2004- 2005 academic year, several of us had heard stories from Black students about incidents that made their classroom and work environment uncomfortable.

With the aim of giving public support to the teaching assistants and distancing the department from the content of the article, a group of History faculty began to draft a letter to the student newspaper. As Professor X reframed the issue into an ideological battle between Right and Left, I was singled out as the ringleader, but in fact the idea for the letter was not mine and I was not involved in writing the first draft.

When we asked others to sign the letter, it immediately became apparent that we would not be able to speak in the department’s name about the issue of racism. Some liberals in the department were willing to criticize Professor X for academic misconduct because of his editing of the article, but they did not want to address the racist content.

Some department members who sympathized with our criticisms argued that Professor X should first be given an opportunity to apologize, and we accepted this suggestion.

After a lengthy conversation with the department chair and director of graduate studies, Professor X canceled the reading assignment in an e-mail to his teaching assistants that began, “Apparently, we are to inculcate a teaching philosophy of timidity and be sensitive to covering events that cross some `lines’ but not `others’ (you tell me where they are located).”

It went on to say, “You do NOT have to use the `Zebra Killings’ if you feel `uncomfortable’ discussing the subject matter…Let me know if I can remove any further offensive events, individuals, or essays from my course.”

The message ended with sarcastic comments, beginning with “Forget Louis Farrakhan and his branch of the NOI ever existed. It didn’t happen,” and ending with “Radical feminists: Never said a bad thing about men.” This was only the beginning of his argument that his academic freedom was violated; the real issue was “pc” professors attacking his conservative ideology.

Escalating Charges

By this point, two of the teaching assistants were uncomfortable enough that they did not want to finish the class under Professor X’s supervision. The dean reassigned them after checking with the higher administration and with legal counsel. But she did not allow them to go to their sections to explain why they were leaving the course, accepting the claim of our Faculty union president that the professor has complete control over his class.

X clearly gave a self-serving explanation in lecture, because one of the TAs started to receive hostile e-mail from a student who had initially supported her. (One of these messages called her a “racist pig.”) Within a week or so the two TAs were replaced by two people who had received graduate degrees from our program.

Before his TAs made their decision to leave, Professor X sent a brief e-mail apology to History faculty and graduate students. But he did not see fit to apologize to his TAs. Moreover, his apology to the faculty showed no contrition and implied that the real problem was that we were all being oversensitive. His reference to the handout as an “optional” reading, a falsity repeated in subsequent media accounts, further fueled his later charge that we were making a big deal out of nothing.

Shortly before that message went out, Professor X asked me to talk to him, which I agreed to do. However, he cut off communication when I raised the issue of a hostile environment for minority students. This is another likely reason I was pegged as the ringleader, since the phrase “hostile environment” clearly sets off alarm bells for David Horowitz and his followers.

Professor X threatened me — I assume trying to silence my criticism — by sending me messages he had already sent to the chair and the dean, which accused me of silencing conservative students in my classes and assigning “WHOLE BOOK-length histories written by liberal or radical journalists as REQUIRED reading;” (the first accusation is absurd, the second is true, for what it’s worth).

The next day he sent a message to a graduate student complaining about how he was being treated, saying the ACLU thought this was outrageous (another lie that was repeated many times), and, again, attacking me for silencing students in class.

That same day, a group of History faculty sent a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper, the Daily Egyptian (DE), largely for the purpose of expressing public support for the TAs. The eight signatories were all women. The letter criticized the article and then went on to say:

“As history professors we believe that teaching controversy and using controversial course materials is a vital part of teaching, and we all should do it. It is also, crucial, however, to clearly distinguish documents that illustrate racism in the American past from present-day racist propaganda.

We strongly believe in the rights of academic freedom and in a professor’s right to choose course material. Academic responsibility, however, demands that professors promote the free exchange of ideas without running the risk of nurturing racist attitudes among their students and putting their teaching assistants in an untenable position.”(3)

The DE then did a story on the incident based mainly on Professor X’s account and interpretation of events. The board of editors published a column sympathizing with him as a victim whose academic freedom had been violated as well as a letter to the editor accusing the signers of our statement of using “McCarthyite” tactics.

The TAs began to disappear from the story. In retrospect, it is clear that the reframing of the issues began days before our public statement appeared. Professor X’s accusations about me and his reaction to my raising the issue of a hostile work environment were clues of what was to come.

By the time this story reached the local newspaper, the Southern Illinoisan, Professor X was alleging that we were trying to repress the “lone libertarian-conservative on a campus that lacks ideological diversity,” violating his rights to free speech and academic freedom, and carrying out a “vendetta,” a “witch-hunt,” a “lynching.”(4)

Over the next few weeks, these charges were printed uncritically in local newspapers and all kinds of online journals. Almost no one asked us for our version of events, and no one seemed willing to do a little bit of research into the matter. Only our local independent media center printed a sympathetic story (on-line) based on documented events.

Aside from that one exception, Professor X’s claims were taken at face value, and the issues were no longer the treatment of teaching assistants, the irresponsible use of an inflammatory article and the racial climate in our department, but academic freedom and white male conservatives as victims.

In the meantime, the TAs kept quiet because they were already in an uncomfortable position and received advice not to fight the media attack. Most of the signers of the letter kept quiet as well for a variety of reasons, among them concerns about how all this might affect upcoming tenure and promotion decisions. As the sole full professor, I was the only person who did not have these concerns, and I did on occasion talk to the press, though reporters were not exactly beating down any of our doors.

The Horowitz Factor

The same day that the Southern Illinoisan quoted Professor X saying that the onslaught by his colleagues continued (a bold- faced lie), the signers of the letter were attacked on frontpagemag.com — the same source from which the article on the zebra killings came. “Academic Witch-Hunt” featured a picture of me with a lynching behind me, targeted me as X’s “chief prosecutor,” and attacked in detail the three signatories with apparent left-wing backgrounds and connections.(5)

The article was red-baiting of the worst sort, including lies, guilt by association and inflammatory rhetoric. In a deliberate aim to turn the actual story on its head, it accused us of using these same tactics. And it completed the reframing of the issue, concluding “In seizing on the article to stigmatize a colleague for politically incorrect ideas, they have demonstrated that the academic witch-hunt is alive and well at SIUC.”

The message was crystal clear: if you raise the issue of racism, you are by definition mounting a vicious attack that justifies any response.(6) The frontpage.com article was picked up by other right wing sites, including American Renaissance, and we received dozens of nasty e-mails from around the country.

Surprisingly, the response on campus was not all that different, as many people rushed to judgment and condemned us without ever asking us why we acted. This included several people who consider themselves liberals or progressives of some sort. The extent to which faculty filtered these events through their own personal or ideological lens was somewhat astounding, as was the viciousness and duplicity of their attacks on us.(7)

Anyone who had ever been accused of racism assumed the professor in question had been wrongly accused. And those who do not like our dean for one reason or another were determined to make her the culprit. Even those who supported us were reluctant to do so publicly. Free speech was indeed chilled, not because of our letter, but because of the subsequent attacks on us.

Evading Race

The reaction in our department was even more disturbing. When we finally met, no one really wanted to discuss the important issues at all. Several people expressed concern for Professor X, while leaving unstated their clear anger at us. We distributed copies of the frontpage article, which labeled us “a cabal of eight radical academics” and “thought police” who hoped “to purge the last remaining dissident in the department so they can carry out their totalitarian agenda.”

One piece of evidence it offered to prove my “lifelong commitment to totalitarian causes” was that, after Pete Seeger visited our campus, “four days before 9/11,” I stated that he “should be regarded as an important figure in American history, not just as a prolific songwriter, but as a social critic.”

We attached to the article one of the vilest of the e-mails we received; addressed to me, the subject line was “YOU EVIL FILTHY UGLY COMMIE CVNT.” None of my History colleagues had anything to say about the way we had been cast as witches and witch-hunters, the use of anti-Semitic imagery, or the red-baiting.

There are only two other women in the department, one being our chair, who had already privately expressed sympathy for those of us who were attacked. Clearly the bonds of male collegiality, and in some cases fear, far outweighed concerns about racism.

The administration was even worse. The provost and chancellor somehow had hours to hear X’s version of events, but they refused to meet with me. The president of the board of trustees was quoted in the local paper as saying the “debate” — as if there was one —had descended to levels worthy of talk radio.(8)

This was typical of the coverage as well, which assumed there were two sides attacking each other. But all we did was publish a letter in the student newspaper, while Professor X spent hours with student reporters and local journalists, and mounted a national campaign attacking us and reframing the issues.

The following articles and editorials relied heavily on the details in frontpagemag:

* insidehighered.com — “Handout Hysteria or Insensitivity?”

* Boston.com (Boston Globe) — “A left-wing witch-hunt on campus”

* Foxnews.com — “Outraged in Illinois”

* Majoritynews.com — “Judeo-Bolshevism” — “Terrorist Censorship”

The local paper followed suit. Having already printed articles that told the story in great detail from Professor X’s point of view, the editor wrote a column claiming, among other things, that someone who works at SIU (someone whom none of us had ever met) said we probably had a vendetta against the professor.

Another columnist wrote about “the SIU tolerance police, led by head character assassin Robbie Lieberman,” arguing that “Now is not the time to be quiet and it is certainly not the time to let those out to get X___ shout down those with a differing view.” Of course, right wing columnists were the only ones doing the shouting.(9)

Ongoing Struggle and Fallout

Since school ended in May the executive board of the local ACLU has had two lengthy meetings about this case, one to discuss whether Professor X’s free speech rights were violated, the other on questions of due process. After heated discussion, the board concluded that there was no clear issue meriting support from the ACLU. Some members have not given up, and there is another discussion scheduled.

Due process is now the subject of a grievance Professor X filed against the dean of Liberal Arts through the campus Judicial Review Board, which I chair. It is too soon to know how this will play out or what the extent of the fallout will be. Our graduate program will likely take a long time to recover, and there is much fear among our students.

The message seems to be that raising the issue of racism will only lead to grief for those who raise it. X’s African American TAs were also attacked in Internet articles and blogs, and their peers are fearful of expressing sympathy for them lest they become subject to attack as well.(10)

Graduate students also worry about being perceived by the faculty as taking sides. One of the concerns they have expressed is about whether certain faculty members will still serve on committees together.

If there is one thing I regret about this series of events, it is my own naivete about how this incident would be used to attack universities as bastions of “intolerant pc professors.” In my experience, and in this particular case, nothing could be further from the truth.

Some faculty in other departments have asked why it took ten years for an incident like this to surface — surely Professor X has done things like this before? My response is that it indicates the tolerance of our academic community.

While Professor X has been compiling voting records of faculty in the College of Liberal Arts (which, he argues, demonstrates the lack of ideological diversity), challenging the university’s affirmative action policy, and spending considerable time consulting for the tobacco industry, his colleagues have done nothing to challenge him.

What might be learned from this series of events?

First, lies and manipulation are a central part of this story. From the beginning, for example, X and his supporters equated criticism with censorship; in retrospect, it seems that this was not mere stupidity but part of a well-thought out strategy.(11)

Another point is that we were slow to respond, at first thinking we were taking the moral high ground, and later because it was difficult to maintain a unified position in the face of the attacks. If I had it to do over again, I would be far more aggressive about getting my own account of events out in public.

A third point is that there was little help forthcoming from professional organizations. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chastised us for having said anything publicly, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) was gathering stories in order to understand how these attacks work but had no mechanism for intervening, and the American Historical Association (AHA), which no longer takes on cases of academic misconduct, had no suggestions other than to contact the AAUP.

Intimidating Atmosphere

Most important, however, is how difficult it is to convince faculty, students, or administrators to engage the issue of racism on campus. The message to Black students is that they should not attend white-dominated institutions or major in white-dominated disciplines, and definitely not speak out against racism.(12)

The Right reframes the issue in order to campaign against “political correctness,” which adds up to active intimidation and suppression of those who point out instances of racism on campus. Thus, the conclusion is pretty depressing; in our case, many people on the local level remained silent, either because of fear or the belief that the demands of collegiality came first.

On the national level any discussion of “hostile environments” gets twisted by the Right, which loudly proclaims that universities are hostile environments for conservative white males.


  1. James Lubinskas, “Remembering the Zebra Killings,” FrontPageMagazine.com, August 30, 2001. The article cites crime writer Clark Howard’s 1979 book, Zebra, as the definitive work on the subject. Lubinskas argues that “Blacks…showed a stunning lack of remorse for what was happening to their white neighbors,” and concludes that “a society that memorializes Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and James Byrd should also make room for the victims of the Zebra Killings. Justice demands it.”
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  2. According to Professor X’s instructions, “Someone once wrote that the oldest story known to man is that of the former oppressed becoming the oppressor.”
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  3. The editor printed the wrong draft of our letter, which did not include our final corrections and left off two names. Since we had already paid for a display ad before deciding to change it to a letter, we had the paper print the ad the next day. The editors never took responsibility for their error, and even though we explained the problem at the top of the display ad, we were later attacked for publishing our criticisms twice.
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  4. The newspapers reported that he told his class, “I had two direct ancestors hung as witches in Salem. I don’t plan to be the third.”
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  5. Among other things, it criticized us for opposing the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. There are several possible reasons I was singled out for attack: X had already indicated that he thought I do the same things as he does, only from the Left, and he probably assumed I led in criticizing his behavior. I also teach courses in the history of American radicalism, protest movements of the 1960s, etc., and have published widely on the subjects of American communism and anti-communism. I do not hide my family background; my grandfather was blacklisted in Hollywood, my mother had trouble getting her teaching credential and my father changed his name in order to work in the 1950s. And I published a column after David Horowitz’s first visit to campus, in which I criticized his views. In any case, the rhetoric in the frontpagemag attack is revealing in its disregard for the truth and its exaggeration to make an ideological point: “witch-hunters demanded X’s head…” — “The witch-hunters thirst for vengeance…” — “The ferocity of the crusade against X was breathtaking.” — “The facts in the article were true.” Frontpage mag.com, 4/27/2005.
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  6. Several of X’s (liberal) supporters defended the attacks on me with such clichés as, “If you play with fire you will get burned.”
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  7. X’s supporters did not just write letters attacking us but appeared in several venues, including a faculty meeting and meetings of the ACLU executive board, where they presented X’s interpretation of events as fact, told outright lies about some of us and our graduate students, and then reported falsely on what had gone on in these meetings.
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  8. I wrote a letter to campus administrators — president, chancellor, provost, and Board of Trustees president — suggesting that they might want to express sympathy privately about the attacks on us. (I also used Martin Luther King, Jr.’s posing of “order” versus “justice” in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”) No one has ever responded to my letter.
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  9. I submitted a guest column to the local paper in response to these attacks, but the editors would not print it.
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  10. The family of the lone female TA was concerned about her physical safety, as my family was about mine.
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  11. The examples are too numerous to list here, but I will mention one more: When faculty finally released damning evidence about Professor X to the student newspaper, such as the hostile messages he sent while ostensibly apologizing, he declared that he had already won in the court of public opinion. He then sent an “olive branch” message to each of the letter signers saying he did not want to continue arguing in the newspaper and asking for peace in the department — meanwhile the media campaign against us continued.
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  12. To this day there has been little attempt made to protect the students involved, aside from allowing them to leave the course. That act has been interpreted by Professor X and his supporters as punishment against him, even though the dean explicitly and publicly stated there was no disciplinary action being taken against him.

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ATC 118, September-October 2005