I went to work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2003. I was thrilled to get a chance to work at such a badass four year university only three years after I had finished my doctorate. I came to higher education late, having taught high school until my kids no longer needed as much from me. So, to be able to get a gig at a well thought of four year institution was quite a coup. My dean at my current small regional college was so jealous he stopped speaking to me. Finally, I thought, I am getting a chance to show what I can do. I often ponder now if knowing then what I know now would I have taken the job?
At the beginning they all treated me like I was a piece of Jesus. I had turned them down the first time they had offered me the job. The initial visit was just too Southern in not a good way. They put me up in the Carolina Inn which looks like Tara from Gone with the Wind and had about as much racial progress. There were lots and lots of pictures, all of white people and the staff was as white as a blizzard in Antarctica. There was a large statue of a Confederate soldier proudly displayed in one of the main green spaces. When I had spoken to the man who would become my boss,, who I will call Mr. Step and Fetchit or Mr. SF, early on in the negotiations I had expressed my sincere doubt that they really wanted me. I was, I told him a plain spoken black woman who had never had to, or been inclined to, watch what I said, particularly about race. I was, I told him, not prone to shooting off my mouth without data to back up my assertions, but I would, no pun intended, call a spade a spade when I saw something that was not right. He promised me that UNC was a liberal college that would welcome my vociferous advocacy for justice. That was only the first lie he told me.
Shortly after I arrived, within a few weeks, people black and white, who agreed with me and liked me began to sidle up to me and whisper for me to be careful what I said. The black people generally couched their advice in some version of ” don’t make the white people mad or they will fire you.” They seemed amazed when I told them that the road to Ohio still ran and if they did not want me there I would go back home. My ancestors, I told them, had not choice as slaves but to keep the white folks happy. Due to the sacrifice of many I no longer had that requirement. The white people generally offered advice of the type that implied they understood and liked/loved me, but there were a lot of powerful people on campus who did not get that speaking truth to power should be encouraged and not punished. This they told me was The Carolina Way. I soon learned that the Carolina Way consisted of pretending everything was fine, everyone loved everyone else and as long as the basketball team was winning what was not to love? It did not include transparency, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, truth, honesty or justice.
In many ways, even though I was a woman of a certain age when I went to Carolina, I was naive. I had only experienced living in southwest Ohio. Although you could hardly call the Miami Valley a bastion of social justice, we have our struggles, and it is a very white part of the state except for Cincinnati. Cincinnati itself is about as racist as any northern city comes, maybe even as any city comes. But, people here do not dispute the fact that there is racism and even though they do not often want to hear about it, and sometimes do not recognize it, when you make your case with facts they generally, sometimes grudgingly, admit you have a point. I presumed the same truth would hold up in my new “liberal” college. One of the first things I learned to disabuse me of this was that it was considered heresy to speak ill of the University, even when it was obviously wrong.
The allegiance to Carolina is quite akin to a cult. Black people are not immune amazingly. I have had students literally on the floor of my office crying because they have found ot to their great chagrin that their beloved school is not only not free of bias, but is jealously guarding its privilege to remain so. Then two years later I will see these same students at the Black Alumni Reunion singing Carolina’s praises both in song and in speech. The same is true of black employees. They would turn up in my office with often egregious instances of discrimination. When i suggested they take some action they were horrified. They, too, would be right there at the BAR saying what a fantastic place it was. I never understood it. They winked at buildings named after Klansmen, the statue honoring the Confederacy, the dismal graduation rate of black males, the exodus from the University of any black woman who had not learned not to talk back, all of it rolled off them like water off a duck’s back.
I, on the other hand, was told by quite a few white folks that they found me intimidating. How, I asked them, could I be intimidating them? I had not power to hire or fire, I never insulted anyone, cursed at anyone, belittled anyone. What I got down to finally was that I was able to make my point, back it up with facts and that as a black woman I had too good of a vocabulary. Translation: I was intimidating because not only didn’t I know my place, I refused to stay in it!
Fast forward now to the so called Athletic/Academic scandal. Carolina has been not only accused but found to have offered bogus classes to over 3,000 students and for decades. About 47% of the students in these classes were athletes, not all revenue sports ( football and basketball) so not all black. Fifty-three percent of the students were not athletes, and there is some claim that fraternities, read white boys, were heavily enrolled in these non-class classes as well. Yet, the profile of the case has been football players, read black males. The only department implicated, although probably not the only one involved, has been the African/African American Studies department. In other words in the true Southern tradition it is a black mess according to the powers that be, caused by the lack of intelligence and honesty of black people. What is not to love about that?
The AF/AM department had been objected to before it came into being. The fact that it was chosen as the repository of organized academic fraud gives you a very good idea of what the University thought of the study of black people. Pretty much the same thing it thinks of black people in general: They are sometimes a necessary evil, but can be managed so as to have as little impact on the status quo as possible.
One of the icons of Carolina, Bill Friday, has been widely praised for standing up against corruption in revenue sports. Dr. Friday had a very checkered past when it comes to race and oddly enough he and his fellow defender of the white, Bob Knight, never found their appalled button until said sports began to be dominated by blacks. Coincidence I am certain. So we already had someone saying not so obliquely , that these sports needed to be purged and purified. This is way before according to some reports the University leadership had recently told the football coach to stop recruiting inner city blacks because they gave the team the wrong flavor.
The problem has been caused, at least in the athletic arena, by a heart-felt and dearly cherished belief that black athletes ( and generally black people) are not to be expected to be the intellectual equal of white folks and need to have some “help” in order to succeed academically. Instead of channeling their efforts into ameliorating any academic difficulties the black athlete might appear on campus with they decided to let him concentrate on what he was good at, that being physical activity that would make the University money. Why bother him with pesky details like learning? Oh I know, the reason they do not pay these ebony money machines is because their pay is a fine, upstanding, first class education. I mean heck, how many people can get an A in a class they don’t ever go to? That has to be worth something, right? The other students who took advantage of the no-show classes were just the beneficiaries of the solution to a race based dilemma, how to bring those black boys up to snuff, at least on paper. .
When I was the Chair of the Black Faculty Staff Caucus I invited the then Chancellor to a meeting. I asked him, given the statistics I had collected, and shared with him before the meeting, about black athletes and their abysmal graduation rates, what kind of academic interventions or personalized remediation plans were in place? I reminded him that some of our black athletes are recruited from places where the schools they attend do not offer higher level math and science, yet they are expected to sit in classes with students from elite schools that offer AP courses and International Baccalaureate Curricula. His response ? ” I don’t know.” Nor, I suspect did he want to.
The roots of the problem at Carolina are in racism. Unless they acknowledge that and take steps to root it out, which will includes eschewing their habit of hiring blacks who keep their mouths shut to protect their jobs, the problem will crop up in other areas repeatedly. You have to kill the entire plant, not just trim off the ugly parts that are above ground. Get to digging Carolina.