As Air Force fights real hate, IU caves over the phony kind

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Within days of each other, two American universities provided very different but equally important lessons about what real racism looks like — and how it should be confronted.

The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, which exists used to train young and men and women for conflict, appropriately earned an exemplary grade. Officials at Indiana University in Bloomington, unfortunately, turned out to be worse than failures by replacing an initial promise of bravery with proof of cowardice.

Given the spectacle of millionaire athletes protesting America’s unfairness, the removal or vandalism of statues no longer deemed politically correct, the demand for safe spaces and self-segregated housing on college campuses and endless chatter about “white privilege,” it is easy to dismiss concern about racism as fatuous or downright cynical. IU’s decision to end lectures in a hall decorated with a mural that includes a hooded Ku Klux Klansman is a sorry example of both.

As I wrote last month, Thomas Hart Benton’s painting of “Parks, the Circus, the Klan and the Press” has graced the wall in Woodburn Hall since 1941 and is one of 22 panels created to “show all aspects” of Indiana’s history. That means showing the bad as well as the good. Unlike some of the Confederate statues now under attack, however, the mural was not intended to glorify racism. Just the opposite: Benton’s mural celebrates the Indianapolis Times reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for breaking the Klan’s grip on Hoosier politics.

In other words, the mural is the opposite of racist.

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University officials at first seemed to understand that, responding to demands for the mural’s removal with a promise to keep it where it is. “Education is the best response to concerns over the Benton murals,” they stated.

If so, it will now have to happen through so-called “distance learning.” Provost Lauren Robel told students Friday that although education remains important, “that intellectual work can and should take place in a context that does not involve the captive audience of classes devoted to other subjects.” How that education can happen without exposure to the mural or, presumably, Indiana’s unfortunate prominence in Klan history, he did not say.

It would be humorous were it not so sad, but it’s important to remember that such idiocy does not happen in a vacuum.

In sharp contrast to the faux racism at IU, the real thing has just surfaced at the Air Force Academy, where someone wrote racial slurs on the message boards outside the dorm rooms of five black students. But Superintendent Lt. Gen Jay Silveria didn’t bring in counselors or establish safe spaces. He clearly identified both the problem and the solution. Invoking a desire to avoid the sort of racial unrest manifested in the NFL protests and places such as Ferguson, Mo., and Charlottesville, Va., he put it in language even college students should understand:

“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, get out,” he said in words that didn’t technically constitute an order, but should have. He even told the students to record his statement so there would be no misunderstanding.

Silveria didn’t try to understand why someone would do such a thing, nor did he try to shield students from hurt feelings; he simply made it clear such actions would not be tolerated. If you can’t behave like a rational, decent human being, he said, we don’t want you here.

It was a message almost as anachronistic as writing the “n-word” outside a cadet’s room might have seemed before last week. Growing up in the 1960s, my racial attitudes were shaped by Martin Luther King Jr.’s stated dream of a color-blind America in which people would be judged on the basis of their talent and character, not their pigmentation. I thought it was a good idea then. I still do.

But, clearly, that view is now anachronistic, too, as various ethnic groups — including whites — pile up grievances in order to maintain or create their own power base. It’s a tactic that refuses to consider other points of view, inevitably turning would-be allies into adversaries and making true reconciliation and progress all but impossible.

Students don’t go to college to be abused because of race or anything else. But their education should at least include an understanding of how racism has affected American history from the beginning, and how it cannot be defeated by denying its existence or by replacing traditional bigotry a more politically correct version. “Educators” who believe otherwise should think about taking Silveria’s advice.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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