Rutgers English Dept. Responds To Racist Email [Updated]

Yesterday, a group of Rutgers students took the English Dept. to task for failing to respond to a student's racist email about a whites-only screening of the film "Song of the South". But the department chair has contacted me to say that, in fact, they have responded.

First, a correction: several in the Rutgers community pointed out to us that while the students who wrote yesterday's Daily Targum editorial were part of a course titled "Race, Ethnicity and Inequality in Education," the offending email actually went out to students in the English Dept. class "Post-Bellum/Pre-Harlem," described as "a period survey class of writing about race at a moment of great change in its conceptualization as a marker of both social difference and of aesthetic distinction." While students in this class weren't directly addressing racial inequality in education, they were still tackling issues of race and racism critically, and certainly should have been aware that an email advertising a whites-only viewing of "Song of the South," complete with "Darkeyisms," was problematic. Also, Elizabeth Braxton, whose byline is attached to the Targum piece, explains that in fact "I am not the author of the piece. The letter was a class initiative constructed by my peers in our Race, Ethnicity, and Inequality in Education course, and was co-signed by myself and other members of our class." She declined to comment further until she had discussed the issue with her classmates.

According to Prof. Carolyn Williams, chair of the Rutgers English Dept., faculty and administrators responded swiftly to the email. She wrote to me,

The article in the Daily Targum is erroneous in many respects. Most important, it is not true that we "failed to address racism," as the title and substance of the article claims. The offending email was written on September 28. On September 29, our Director of Graduate Studies was informed, and on September 30 she wrote to the author of the email. On that same day (September 30), the author of the offending email apologized to her fellow students and to the Director of Graduate Studies. The party certainly did not take place. On October 3, the author of the email apologized to the entire class.

She also says the department organized a public forum, which the Targum editorial criticized as "a panel discussion on race organized not by the English department, but by the students who were the victims of the email in the first place." Williams counters,

Faculty members worked hard to help the organizers shape the structure, timing, and content of the Forum; the Targum article seriously underestimates this participation. Yes, the students were in charge, and we think that is a good thing. Our Forum took place on December 7.

Finally, she disputes the Targum editorial's assertion that "no one in the department publicly acknowledged the racist, discriminatory nature of the email." She says the department did in fact issue an official response to the racist email, after the forum took place. The response, addressed to "colleagues in English — faculty, staff, graduate students," reads, in part,

The Department of English, like the rest of Rutgers University, finds bias acts unacceptable. Despite our best efforts, a bias act did occur this fall in the context of one of our graduate classes, and it disrupted our community. We have spoken to the African American students and other students hurt by the act, both as a group and individually; and we have sought counsel from African American faculty, with whom our students have also been in dialogue. A group of our graduate students planned and spoke at the Civility Forum, which was very well attended last week, and which has helped us to register the severity of the problem, and to begin to move toward restoration of our community. [...]

Since Wednesday's Forum, we have been in touch with many people across the University who have been extremely helpful and have given us good advice about ways of moving forward. We will continue to seek guidance from outside and from within our own community. With this guidance, the Executive Committee of the Department, as well as the Graduate Executive Committee, will begin work early in the new year to articulate policy, which will be discussed with the Department as a whole; further events will be planned; and we will continue the dialogue begun at the Civility Forum. We are absolutely committed to practicing critical pedagogy in a welcoming environment, free from bias in any form.

No one's disputing the disturbing content of the email. However, Williams argues compellingly that her department has responded and continues to respond to the racist message and the issues it brought up. Hopefully their efforts will ensure that students confront their own prejudices before committing them to email.

Update:
Elizabeth Braxton, coauthor of the Targum editorial, told us via email that her classmates had discussed the issue further at their class meeting Thursday, Dec. 15. She said, "We stand by the letter we submitted, and offer no additional comments or information."

Earlier: Rutgers Student Stages Whites-Only Screening Of Racist Movie