U.S. sociology professors defend ASU Problem of Whiteness course

Recent criticisms of ASU’s new English course, "U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness," have incited outrage across America as skeptics claim the study is racist against white people.

The controversy flared when broadcast journalism junior Lauren Clark appeared on Fox News to share her criticism of the course.

Clark told "Fox and Friends" co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck required readings, such as Jane Hill’s “The Everyday Language of White Racism,” “have a disturbing trend, and that’s pointing to white people as a root cause of social injustices for this country.”

Following the segment, professor Lee Bebout told The Arizona Republic he received “vitriolic hate-mail” and has since declined to comment.

However, some educators, such as Charles Gallagher, a sociology professor at La Salle University, support the course’s creation for its focus on modern racial inequality.

“The title of this class is provocative because people are saying ‘Problem? There is no problem. We have a black president,’” he said. “But the reality is that there’s this long and rich sociological –– not only history –– but contemporary study of racial inequality.”

Despite popular opinion, racial inequality still exists, Gallagher said.

“(Most whites) believe they’re color blind now,” he said. “Most whites align with this idea of ‘I’m not racist. I voted for Barack Obama. I have a black friend. I like black music.’ A lot of whites have convinced themselves that they are no longer racist. …They don’t see themselves as a problem.”

However, Gallagher said white privilege and authority is an ongoing issue.

“We may have a black president, but this is a white nation,” he said. “Look at Congress. Look at the halls of justice. Look at corporate America. It’s white people running the show.”

Joe Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M; University with over 60 books published on white racism, said courses focusing on conceptual whiteness have historical validity.

“Our history is rooted in white supremacy,” he said. “Eighty-three percent (of history) was ruled by slavery and Jim Crow. We’ve only theoretically been a free country since 1969, when the Civil Rights Act went into effect.”

Although the "Problem of Whiteness" course is new to ASU, universities have offered white racism studies without controversy for years, Feagin said.

“Courses like this have been taught since the mid-1990s; for two decades,” he said. “I’ve taught them many times, and never had this kind of fuss.”

However, ASU is not the first university to see controversy within American racial studies. During the mid-‘90s, Noel Cazenave, a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut, faced similar opposition for a course exploring white racism.

“They said it was racist against white people, which is ridiculous because the whole premise of the course was that there are no white people,” he said.

Cazenave said he finds that most sociology studies overwhelmingly focus on minorities as the problem.

“In many sociology courses, students are taught about minorities and are told about this problem and that problem, but there is no focus on race relations at all,” he said. “The whole focus is on what is wrong with these minorities."

Considering whiteness as a problem is only a change of focus, Cazenave said.

"A course on white racism … locates people of European-American descent at the center of America’s race problem,” he said.

However, Cazenave said a discussion of white racism is not a charge against white people.

“I want people to realize in Arizona that it is OK to talk about whiteness as a problem,” he said. “Don’t play language games that keep people from using straightforward and honest language to talk about our very serious problems in this country –– and white racism is a serious problem.”

Reach the reporter at aplante@asu.edu or follow @aimeenplante on Twitter.

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