Roger Wood Wilkins
Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History and American Culture
George Mason University

Seventh Annual University Senate
Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture
on Academic and Intellectual Freedom

University of Michigan

March 17, 1997

Speaking here at Michigan is wonderful for me. It is, in a real sense, a coming home. I entered this university as a skinny, scared 17-year-old nearly 48 years ago, wondering : "What's to become of me?" Now, after all this time, I know.

I began forging the answer to that question in the seven years I spent here. I love this place. It is where I began in earnest the task of attempting to develop a deep and comfort in being a black citizen in a country that insisted on claiming to be white.

My deep affection for this university stems in part from the hard lessons I learned as I began that journey. I experienced Michigan as a white institution and I had to adjust my spirit in ways that helped prepare me for the soul-jarring contradictions blacks encounter just living in their own country.

I will return in a moment to Michigan and the hard lessons it taught at mid-century and to the lessons I believe it must now work very hard to teach to help prepare this country for the next mid-century. First, however, I want to touch on citizenship.

A couple of years ago, I became certain that my sense of American-ness had settled deep inside me during an exchange with a student that occurred during a question period at the end of a debate I'd had with a black conservative at George Mason University, where I teach. I interrupted a personal attack the student was leveling at my debate opponent.

"But Professor," the student complained, "he offended me as an African in America."

After commenting on what was required of us as hosts, I then blurted out words I'd never consciously thought before: "I don't think we're 'Africans in America.' At least I'm not."

"What kind of African is born in Kansas City, lives and dies for the University of Michigan football team; loves Toni Morrison, William Faulkner and the Baltimore Orioles; reveres George Washington and Harriet Tubman; and who, when puzzled by the conundrum of Thomas Jefferson, collects his thoughts while listening to B.B. King?"

I am profoundly connected to the ideas, the history, the soil and the culture of this vast complex and confounding country and as an active and concerned citizen, I am deeply disturbed about its future. I have strong ideas about what institutions like this one must do about the problems I see looming in that future. In order to do that, I need first to talk about the institution I encountered here almost fifty years ago.

I remember encountering no black adults either on the faculty or on the administrative staffs of the university during my seven years here. I was assigned no book, play, essay or poem by a black author nor did I have a reading assignment over those seven years that suggested that blacks had done anything of value in the history of the world except for the decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which I studied in law school.

Many of the whites on campus went off to live in their segregated fraternities and sororities. Whatever mixing there was usually ended on the steps of Angell Hall. By necessity, we blacks constructed a segregated social world for ourselves here.

The lessons that both we and our white fellow-students learned from all this were, of course, quite awful ones. The bloated sense of self and the sense of entitlement to unearned privilege was driven deeply into the spirits of our white classmates by the campus culture. For us blacks the answers to the fundamental questions that young people ask themselves were these: Who am I? A semi-person. Where do I fit? At the margins. What is my role in America? To be an eternal supplicant.

Perhaps worst of all, we were encouraged by what we found here to hold onto the belief we had come with: That we had nothing to learn from one another across the racial divide. Whatever we had in our heads on that subject at 17 or 18 was sufficient for our adulthood and for our joint citizenship in this country. Unfortunately, despite significant advances too much of what happens in higher education today teaches, though perhaps less powerfully and pointedly, those same lessons.

There was at least one other set of lessons that the university taught me by following the culture of the time. We students of the fifties were called the silent generation. We were silent largely because the times frightened most of us. When we did attempt to speak up, we were slapped down. It was a dark time. The ugliest scar was inflicted during my first year here. In February 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin delivered the speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, alleging that he knew of a large number of Communists in the State Department and thus gave his name to an ugly period that had already begun.

In my junior year, I was a new member of the student government--the only black--and the Chair of its Human Relations Committee.

In those days, just after Jack Roosevelt Robinson integrated major league baseball, but before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the University of Michigan followed American culture. No black person had ever represented this university on the basketball court or on the baseball diamond. Though racial designations weren't required on housing forms, we were assigned rooms by race on the basis of the photographs we were required to submit. The student who became my roommate in the second semester of my freshman year was a light-skinned African American with straight hair. The housing authorities did the right thing for the wrong reasons by placing him with a Hindu from New Delhi and a Muslim from Karachi. He was forced to mediate the partition of the subcontinent all over again. In the meantime, he learned enormous amounts about the post-colonial subcontinent and the people who lived there.

The Student Legislature adopted a resolution, proposed by our committee, which called on the Regents and the university administration to resist subpoenas to be issued by the House Un-American Activities Committee directed at Michigan faculty members. Because the House Committee proposed to probe faculty political beliefs and associations, we believed that the hearing constituted a serious violation of academic freedom. Our resolution was brushed aside by university administrators who said that since this hearing was to occur in Detroit, it was no concern of students, whose interests should not go beyond the campus.

Subsequently, the student government took one more foray into an area of politics that adults found difficult to treat honestly. We believed that fraternities and sororities that had national charters containing racially exclusive clauses were particularly obnoxious at an educational institution. Thus, the Student Legislature enacted a resolution that would have required Greek letter groups to eliminate such charter provisions over a reasonable transition period or face expulsion from the campus.

This action too was brushed aside by the administration. This time we were told that property rights precluded any action on our concern. This statement was buttressed by a citation of Corpus Juris Secundum. A couple of years later when I got to law school I learned that Corpus Juris Secundum was a legal encyclopedia which no one taking an argument seriously would have used as an authoritative statement of Michigan law.

As you might imagine, the idea of dissent in support of principle began to appeal to me as I pondered these actions by people who were supposed to be educating me as a person and as a citizen. I began to internalize active citizenship as a powerful personal value. I surely developed the idea that it was required to probe beneath the conventional wisdom dispensed by society in general or by interested bureaucracies in particular if one were to be in charge of her or his own moral bearings. Lone dissenters of conscience were imprinted on my spirit as the heroes of the time.

For that part of my education, I am deeply indebted to Chandler Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson whose acts of conscience earned them seared careers, but who simultaneously held up guiding torches for me in that decade of darkness.

Those men lit my way toward others carrying torches along the road. I have in mind here J. Waites Waring, the white Federal Judge in Charleston, South Carolina who endured shunning by his local community as he followed what he understood to be the Constitutional requirement to admit blacks to full citizenship. They led me to Andrei Sakharov whose courageous dissent against the Soviet dictatorship made him immortal. And they led me to believe that Martin Luther King Jr.'s finest hour was his dissent from our war policies in Vietnam--despite President Johnson's fury and dire warnings from virtually all of his civil rights colleagues.

My Michigan lessons were thus quite profound. They were that one could love something quite deeply while being aware of and impatient with ugly and glaring imperfections. They were that imperfections had to be addressed, not accepted passively. They were that individual belief in one's own principles and actions taken upon those beliefs could make a profound difference. They were that active citizenship is an obligation of people who value their freedom. And they were that institutions teach powerful lessons which matter down through the long decades of the lives they shape.

So, then, what are universities for? Are we simply here to help our students tuck into their souls the best of what’s been thought and said as they fit themselves into the world as we have received it? Do we create new knowledge only to help these young people develop a better passive understanding of the world than earlier generations had? Is our function, in other words, to accept the world as it is and simply to equip our students with skills--to enjoy Shakespeare and to be computer literate, for example? Or is it to build some of that new knowledge on what we have come to know as human beings and to help equip our students with our understandings so that they may struggle more effectively with the problems that we believe are sure to come?

Should we not teach them about the dangers of national pathologies? No one could have lived through the last two-thirds of the twentieth century without concluding that untended national pathologies can surely lead to the most disastrous national calamities. The pathologies that festered in Tsarist Russia led to the brutalities of Leninism-Stalinism. Pathologies festering beneath Weimar democracy led to murderous Hitlerism in Germany. And untended pathologies have ripped apart the country formerly known as Yugoslavia and the little Central African nation of Rwanda.

The dark American time of the fifties taught that despite our myths about how exceptional we are (and our persistent denials over the centuries of the pathology of racism), the United States is not immune to social pathologies that can destroy lives and rip at the very fabric of our democracy. This was understood as early as 1787. At the Constitutional Convention, in urging an end to the international slave trade, George Mason of Virginia told the notables assembled in Philadelphia:

"...As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, providence punishes national sins by national calamities."

Another lesson of the fifties was that institutional and individual integrity and courage are rare commodities when a nation is in the grip of a fever. And yet, it is just such clarity and courage that are required to serve free institutions and free people during times of great peril. We professors are a privileged class in society. We have good lives and relative security. There is little excuse for us to fail to be brave or to fail to give back to a country that has treated us so generously.

You may think that my talk about pathologies is a bit overwrought as our nation glides through the decade after the collapse of European Communism while enjoying a prolonged period of economic growth. The trouble is that our ancient problems have not gone away and they threaten to get worse very soon.

Let me illustrate with a story from an issue of "The New Yorker" published just after the presidential election of 1992. A reporter watched the election returns in a working class bar on the West Side of Manhattan. The noisiest patron was a white man in a bomber jacket who was audibly distressed by the possibility that Bill Clinton might win. He began muttering about the role he thought Jesse Jackson might play in a Clinton administration. As the evening wore on and a Clinton victory became probable, the man became more agitated. Finally when Clinton's victory was confirmed the man threw his money on the bar and stormed out shouting: "I'm not going to be a minority in my own country."

I want you to remember that man's rage and fear as we peer into our future. Today the population of the globe is about 5.8 billion people, 75per cent of whom are poor. There are about 265 million Americans. 73 percent of us are non-Hispanic white; 12 per cent are black; 10.6 per cent are Hispanic; 3 percent are Asian Americans and less than 1 per cent are Indians, Eskimos or Aleuts.

In the middle of the next century--when my daughter now in the eighth grade is about the age I am now, there will be 8.5 to 10 billion people in the world and 80 per cent of them will be poor. The population of the United States will then be about 394 million, only 52.8 per cent of whom will be "white." The 47.2 per cent of the population that is "minority" will be distributed this way: 24.5 per cent of the American population will be Hispanic; 13.5 per cent will be black; 8.2 per cent will be Asian American and 1 per cent will be Native American, Eskimo or Aleut.

The world will be more closely connected and tightly wired. There will be more poor people in world's population than there are people on the planet today. As we now think of the world's poverty as the cause of enormous problems in immigration policy and the availability of drugs, we should probably remind ourselves that we are only glimpsing the foothills of the emerging world. America will be a much more crowded place with more competition for space and other pressures grinding away at our civility and our senses of personal and international security.

It will, of course, be much harder to think of America as a "white country" or as a new and improved version of Europe. It will be a true world country; a country whose citizens have families with origins on every conceivable spot on the globe.

I would now ask you to think about the man in the bomber jacket who was having an identity crisis in the bar. There are already distressing signs about what our demographic trend might mean for America. I think the Oklahoma City bombing and the national teach-in on militias and white identity groups it generated were deeply disturbing. There are true pathologies at work there. On the far other side of the cultural chasm in America, there is gangsta rap. It is a cultural phenomenon that I find profoundly distressing and I think the companies that profit from it are obscene. Someday scholars of music, poetry and sociology may tell us that this is a starkly beautiful and artistic representation of the spiritual life salvaged from the rubble of the American ghetto. But I find the murders of the gangsta rappers Tupak Shakur and Biggie Smalls to be representative of the economic and spiritual desolation that our country has dumped on our most vulnerable citizens. We, as a people, take our profits and our income where we can find it and then flee from the poverty and human wastage our social and economic dislocations cause.

Lost lives--whether on the streets of the inner city, in the rapidly growing number of prisons or in failed elementary schools--are held in contempt in this country. The contempt is shown by the brutal way society rations opportunity and by young black murderers, who are simply externalizing their own contempt for themselves. The murders and the murderers generate increasing amounts of fear of blacks in general and of the black poor in particular.

We thus already have the bookends of a dreadful American calamity. White identity groups are at one far side and black desperadoes who have absolutely nothing to lose are at the other. The only thing necessary for a full fledged pathology to begin raging is for the pressures of demographic trends to begin to fill up the middle.

My forebodings are not rooted in some ideological denial of the enormous progress in race that this nation has made in my lifetime or the enormous progress this university has made since my time here. America is a far better place today than it was when I was born in a segregated hospital in Missouri 65 years ago or when I began my formal education in a segregated one room schoolhouse four years later. We are surely a fairer and more decent country than we were then and the education provided by this institution is far richer and more conscious of the realities of the society around it than the Michigan I attended. But that progress was achieve—to borrow a phrase--"with all deliberate speed."

I don't think we have the luxury of time anymore. The demographic shift we are experiencing suggests that over the next fifty years, the very identity of the nation will be up for grabs and that many people will be shaken to their roots. Being a human being is an uncertain, often painful and frightening business. People seek solace and security in the group identities which may cloak them with standing and some physical and psychic protection. From our earliest history, when it was already demonstrably not true, Europeans insisted that this was to be a white country.

In those days, the world was thinly populated with perhaps only around half to three-quarters of a billion people. From the 15th century on, the pace of intercontinental collisions of peoples quickened and human difference became a massive human problem. America's national pathologies began to take shape at Jamestown in 1607. Human difference was even more startling then than now and difference was taken to mean danger. The earliest English colonists grappled for ways to deal with people who were different from themselves and finally concluded that domination of the dangerous "other" would work best.

Domination required the creation of a culture which justified a good deal of violence and deviousness, and so otherness became forever dangerous and inferior whether in Native Americans, blacks, dark Latins or Asians. Such people were also pushed to the margins of a busy, thrusting and increasingly more powerful "white" country. Thus, whiteness provided privilege as well as protection. So the white American identity, originally potent because of primal fears, was pounded deeper into the soul of the nation by the cultural accretions that justified the subordination and marginalization of millions of human beings.

Much of the twentieth century racial progress occurred on top of and around this seminal racial sludge that lies somewhere near the center of American culture. As the old caste structures have broken down and have lost their force in law and in the superficial structures of civility, the damage done to all of us by our culture has become more apparent as opportunities for people who are not white remains severely restricted. I will deal here only with the damage to whites and blacks, but I am sure that similar assessments could be made of Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans as well.

Some whites have become more fearful and have retreated into white identity movements of various kinds. Others have become sullenly resentful of any minority advances, which some of them view as personal assaults. Still others have organized highly effective movements to contest the gains blacks and others have made. Some, who believe themselves to be racially decent, continue to behave and to exercise power in the old ways while denying--even to themselves--that they have "a racist bone" in their bodies. While we were once able to believe that "prejudice" was an individual thing, we have come to see during our 30 year attempt to live with civil rights laws that the virus of racism adapts to new circumstances, replicates itself in new generations and affects profoundly how we think, live and make public policy. Laws did liberate millions of white Americans, but they did not root racism out of the culture.

Clearly blacks are damaged as well. In addition to the tangible injuries in the economic, educational, health and housing spheres, there is also the cultural battering of the soul. That takes many forms. For some of the poorest and least connected citizens, it takes the form of almost total demoralization and a collapse of the family structure accompanied by the horrendous collateral damage I have already mentioned. For others it means lowered self-esteem and a sort of constantly imploding rage. And for still others it means a serious confusion about personal identity.

So, I tell my white students that they need to be much more than a collection of fantasies about the magic of whiteness or about the inferiorities of blacks and others in order to be fully human. I tell my black students that they need to be much more than the sum of their injuries and their grievances in order to achieve their full humanity. But for now the injuries to all are there and they are real and they could surely provide the seeds for a new, intense manifestation of our national pathologies.

As politicians have sensed the powerful reactions to challenges to the white identity of the nation or to the individual identities of white human beings, many have chosen the course of least resistance and have pandered to those feelings. The results, --whether on immigration and civil rights issues in California or the ugly and brutal welfare "reform" law--have suggested a national direction that does raise possibilities of massive national calamities as the pace of demographic change picks up speed. We are thus faced with the daunting question of whether we can find national leadership with the courage and principled fiber to see us through such dangerous times.

I can think of no more suitable institutions to take the lead than the nation's universities and colleges. Current academic responses to this danger are hopelessly out of date. Questions about affirmative action are being fought out and defeated in the courts and in the political arena on interpretations of the past. As you would expect, in my mind there is no doubt that minorities and women have enormous justice claims on this society, not just for past wrongs., but for current discrimination for which, in many cases, no adequate remedies other than affirmative action exist. Powerful and right as I believe these claims to be, they rest on past injustices rather than on the even more powerful claims the future makes upon us.

There is also the lumbering multifaceted debate about multiculturalism. This battle is littered with the bodies of "dead white males" and of their "victims." The struggle can be reduced to terms that make it seem pretty silly, but the dangers that grow out of virulent ethnocentrism are not at all funny. Many people just cannot see other people or other cultures. They see representations of their own fears and their own needs. They do not try to understand human behavior and motivation because it is more comforting to deal with myths and stereotypes than with the complexities, ambiguities and gnarled histories that produce the boiling occurrences that we experience as contemporary life.

It therefore seems to me imperative that we change the debate in the society at large about how our business is to be conducted and why. We must also change the debate inside the academy about what we must teach and why. The essential question here is whether we are to follow the culture as universities did in the fifties when they permitted careers such as those of professors Davis, Markert and Nickerson to be damaged or whether we should try to lead the society because our mission is to educate people, most of them citizens, for a future that, thanks to the demographers, we can now see pretty clearly.

The essence of that mission, in my view is to maximize opportunity and to make vigorous use of educational diversity in order to produce the extraordinarily able citizenry that will be required to guide America through the profound changes coming in the next few decades.

To chart such a course and to engage in such a dialogue will take courage because not everyone sees the same future or takes the same view of the educator's responsibility. Some disagreement with my view is clearly rooted in deep intellectual conviction that this is not the role of universities. Some might grow out of the traditional American optimism that we, free and creative people, with the help of our free market, will work things out as we always have. Other opposition will surely be rooted in fear and the need for the crutch of white identity. Finally, there are people who are not about to give up their privileges, whether earned or not. Wherever the opposition comes from, it will be powerful and often bitter. Great courage and tenacity will be required to sustain the side of the argument I am suggesting.

One of the ways we might define our task is to recall the words of the pioneering black historian, Carter G. Woodson, who set out to correct what he called "the miseducation of the Negro." The pathologies lurking just under the tissue of our national civility result from the way we all have been "miseducated." It also results from the fact that millions of our fellow citizens are undereducated and are therefore easy prey for demagogues.

Not long ago, Michigan's Provost, Dr. Bernard Machen made a statement about affirmative action that I would have applauded wholeheartedly a few years ago, but think is too narrow today. He said that the top value at Michigan "is a renewed commitment to diversity and informed affirmative action." Michigan's University Record went on to report that Machen said that "[While] there is a 'compelling case to be made about the need to prepare our students' for life in the 21st century, the key reason for the U-M ‘is an intellectual one,' which he said is defined well by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty--'that it is of special benefit to the quality of thought and discourse for many opinions to be expressed.’"

In short, we need to retell the story of human beings in ways that emphasize our membership in the same species and to retell the story of our country in ways that make it clear that however much white domination there has been, the creation of American culture and identity has always been a multi-racial enterprise; that we have enormous amounts to learn from each other and that our greatest achievements as a nation lie ahead of us as we struggle to become the first country on the planet where the entirety of the human species is present and fully respected in the polity.

In calling for such a national discourse and such

As the New Yorker story about the man in the bomber jacket or my observations of blacks whose horizons are crimped by pain and bitterness demonstrate, there are vast and dangerous numbers of Americans who are not prepared either emotionally or intellectually for the changes we face in the 21st century. And many of these people will become parents who will pass their injuries on to their children thus perpetuating our cultural pathologies. So, I would reverse and enlarge Dr. Machen's vision.

a curriculum, I am not calling for "victim" studies or courses designed narrowly to raise the self-esteem of one group or another. I am seeking ways to include material in our curriculum that seeks to make students more comfortable with their full humanity (with all the existential peril that involves) and with all other kinds of human beings. In addition to revised intellectual content, this would include emotional education to help Americans get through the turbulence of the shifting nature of American identity.

It may help if I give an example of what I mean by emotional education. I learned powerful emotional lessons during the mid and late forties in a Grand Rapids high school in which I was, for much of my time there, the only black student in a population of about 1100. In this time before the Civil Rights Movement, I learned valuable lessons about white people and about myself.

Even though the customs of the times did not constrain whites from expressing belief in their own superiority or their dislike of blacks, I still learned that whites were not supermen and that many of them were quite likable. I found that some of them were smarter than I, and that lots of them weren't; that some of them were better athletes than I, but many weren't and that while there were plenty of racist bozos, there were a lot of really decent people as well.

In sum, I learned--deep down in my soul--that whites were human and so, indeed, was I. Those lessons undoubtedly accounted for the fact that I later had the confidence here at Michigan to run successfully first for the student government and then for the presidency of my class. Moreover, a number of my old high school friends say that knowing our family was the most powerful lesson they learned during their high school days and that the experience enriched them in wonderful ways.

That would suggest that we must begin to take what we say about the benefits of diversity in education seriously. Effective education for American citizenship cannot occur without a richly diverse student body. Every student should be regarded as a potential educational opportunity for every other student and students should be made to understand that concept from the very beginning of their educational experience. Students should be given every opportunity and should be encouraged at every turn to meet, mix and learn with people with different backgrounds from themselves. This effort should include living arrangements, educational exercises in the classroom and extra curricular activities. To the greatest extent possible, we should make sure that students do not retreat easily into the comfortable, but narrowing, habit of spending all of their time with exactly the same kind of people they spent time with in high school--that is with people from homes, parents and family incomes exactly like their own.

But in order to accomplish that on the campus, we must intervene in the national debate on behalf of providing the broadest possible opportunity and explain clearly that our country's future depends upon it. We educators were citizens before we were intellectuals and somewhere, deep in our souls as American citizens, we all know that we owe a great deal to this country. I think we also know that the imperfections we have accommodated for so long are weakening our nation and sapping the vitality of our democracy. Finally, I think we know that however damaging to the country the silence of my student generation was, our silence or passivity as adult educators in the face of the current threats to our democracy will be infinitely worse.

As the story of Germany in the twentieth century tells us, democracy is both precious and perishable. The Founding Fathers expected us to work hard at being citizens and at taking care of our democracy. It has been said that a woman encountered Benjamin Franklin on the street in Philadelphia just after the secret Constitutional Convention had ended.

"What have you made in there, Dr. Franklin?" she is supposed to have asked.

Franklin's reply: "A republic, madam, if you can keep it."

"If you can keep it." Our job as citizens and scholars and teachers is to turn out citizens with the emotional and intellectual capacities to "keep" and improve upon our democracy. The fact is, I learned to think that was my lifetime job when I was a student here back in the fifties. For that lesson above all others, I am deeply grateful to the University of Michigan.

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