Putting the Racist Flyers at University of Michigan in Context

Against the Current, No. 186, January/February 2017

ON MONDAY MORNING, September 26, students arrived to the U-M campus to find racist flyers plastered in Haven Hall, Mason Hall, and several other buildings. University leadership quickly issued a clear statement that, in the words of President Schlissel, “Messages of racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination have no place at the University of Michigan.”

These flyers, posted widely and anonymously are neither isolated to the Univer­sity of Michigan nor represent new ways of disseminating racial bigotry. Over the past few weeks, explicitly hostile, racist messages have appeared at neighboring EMU and many other universities and colleges around the country. These kinds of images and assertions are based in falsehoods that have a long and unsettling history. They are most often used by groups whose manifestos include violence against minorities as a means of “purifying” the nation. While such vicious and blatantly racist rhetoric was in decline for several decades after the Civil Rights movement, many scholars and public watchdogs are now witnessing a rise in this brand of hate speech on the internet and in public spaces around the nation. These flyers should not simply be dismissed as the rantings of a tiny fringe group. Putting these flyers in historical context can both help us understand why they are so disturbing and give us tools to counter such racism.

Two of these flyers in particular make problematic and biased statements that have been debunked by scholars in a range of fields. In responding to these flyers, it is important to know that scholarship has demonstrated that:

There is no proven relationship between race and intelligence

Over the past 100 years, following a longer trend of scientific racism, some researchers have sought to demonstrate that there is a quantifiable correlation between racial group and mental ability, and that IQ (intelligence quotient) is a singular and innate biological trait. This has never been proven. Nevertheless, it is one of the oldest cards in the racist deck, dating back to the early 1900s when the modern intelligence test was invented. To a great extent, these ideas have receded and most psychologists now view intelligence as a complex human trait shaped by genes, environment, experience, and a host of other factors. But there remain some scientists and social scientists who assert that there is a strong correlation between race and intelligence. This association was put forward by some psychologists, sociobiologists, and other social scientists in the 1970s. In the 1990s, the IQ myth appeared again with the publication of the book The Bell Curve, which applied largely discredited paradigms to argue that the IQs (or “cognitive effects”) of blacks were in general lower than those of whites principally due to heredity. Several years ago, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank, was in the news because of controversial claims that Hispanics have lower IQs than whites. This and similar assertions have been used to encourage stricter immigration policies, including deportation. In addition, allegations about the lower quantitative abilities of women have been made to explain why there are significantly fewer women in science and engineering fields.

Black men have long been depicted as criminalistic

Similarly, there is no proven relationship between racial identity and criminal behavior. Scientific and popular racism has long associated black men with irrationality and violent behavior, perpetuating stereotypes of black men in particular as dangerous and predatory. Misguided assertions about IQ feed into these racist arguments, which tend to make assumptions that boys raised without fathers, by single mothers, are more likely to drop out of school, become criminals, and end up in prison. Overall, these arguments fail to account for well-documented racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, including the realities that black people are more heavily policed, and more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated than their white counterparts.

White anxiety about black men dating white women has a long and ugly history

Taboos against interracial intimacy and marriage originated in efforts to defend slavery and segregation. Stereotypes of black men as less civilized, cognitively able, and more dangerous often appear in reference to white women, who, in turn, are portrayed as innocent and in need of protection. Such racial fears about protecting white women’s sexuality have been around for years, inciting lynchings in the early 20th century. They framed the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which showcased many racist themes endorsed by KKK propaganda, and featured a character embodying the stereotype that black men are sex crazed rapists who regularly victimize white women. The KKK is depicted as the savior of the South in the film, which valorizes racial violence to rid white communities of these fictitious threats. The movie was a box office smash. These anxieties played out over and over again in the 20th century. They triggered the murder of fourteen year old Emmett Till, who was killed after simply talking to a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. His case became a lightning rod for the Civil Rights movement. Although today there is greater acceptance of interracial relationships, these stereotypes persist to the detriment of black men, who are depicted as dangerous and threatening, and white women, who are portrayed as helpless victims in need of male white protection.

— signed by 335 U-M faculty and staff by October 2

(See statement and all signers at http://lsa.umich.edu/lsa/about/diversity–equity-and-inclusion/putting-the-racist-flyers-at-u-m-in-context.html.)

January-February 2017, ATC 186