American Politics Aren’t ‘Post-Racial’

Dorothy Rabinowitz, Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2008

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The story began prosaically enough. Keith Sampson, a student employee on the janitorial staff earning his way toward a degree, was in the habit of reading during work breaks. Last October he was immersed in “Notre Dame Vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.”

Mr. Sampson was in short order visited by his union representative, who informed him he must not bring this book to the break room, and that he could be fired. Taking the book to the campus, Mr. Sampson says he was told, was “like bringing pornography to work.” That it was a history of the battle students waged against the Klan in the 1920s in no way impressed the union rep.

The assistant affirmative action officer who next summoned the student was similarly unimpressed. Indeed she was, Mr. Sampson says, irate at his explanation that he was, after all, reading a scholarly book. “The Klan still rules Indiana,” Marguerite Watkins told him—didn’t he know that? Mr. Sampson, by now dazed, pointed out that this book was carried in the university library. Yes, she retorted, you can get Klan propaganda in the library.

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That was in November. Months later, in February of this year, Mr. Sampson received—from the same source—a letter with an astonishingly transformed version of his offense. And there could be no mystery as to the cause of this change.

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And so the new letter to Mr. Sampson by affirmative action officer Charleston brought word that she wished to clarify her previous letter, and to say it was “permissible for him to read scholarly books or other materials on break time.” About the essential and only theme of the first letter—the “racially abhorrent” subject of the book—or the warnings that any “future substantiated conduct of a similar nature could mean serious disciplinary action”—there was not a word. She had meant in that first letter, she said, only to address “conduct” that caused concern among his co-workers.

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This, indeed, was now the official story—as any journalist asking about the case would learn instantly from the university’s media relations representatives. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved—if not much—by the extraordinary efforts of these tormented agents trying to explain that the first letter was all wrong: No reading of any book had anything to do with the charges against Mr. Sampson. This means, I asked one, that Mr. Sampson could have been reading about the adventures of Jack and Jill and he still would have been charged? Yes. What, then, was the offense? “Harassing behavior.” While reading the book? The question led to careful explanations hopeless in tone—for good reason—and well removed from all semblance of reason. What the behavior was, one learned, could never be revealed.

There was, of course, no other offensive behavior; had there been any it would surely have appeared in the first letter’s gusher of accusation. {snip}

In April—having been pressed by the potent national watchdog group FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) as well as the ACLU—University Chancellor Charles R. Bantz finally sent them a letter expressing regret over this affair, and testifying to his profound commitment to freedom of expression. So far as can be ascertained, the university has extended no such expressions of regret to Keith Sampson.

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Its presence is evident in this election campaign, which has seen more than a touch of readiness to impute some form of racism to all tough criticisms of Barack Obama. The deranged response that greeted Bill Clinton’s remark that certain of Sen. Obama’s claims were “a fairy tale,” told the story. No need to go into the now famous catalogue of accusations about the Clintons’ “sly racist” tactics.

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And Mr. Obama himself, the candidate of racial transcendence, has now taken a plunge of sorts to old-style race politics. In a pre-emptive dismissal of future criticism, he warned a Florida audience on June 20 of the racist tactics the Republicans planned. “We know the strategy,” he said. Republicans planned to make people afraid of him. They’d say “he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?”

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[Editor’s Note: The original story about Keth Sampson’s “hate crime” can be read here.]

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