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ASU & Problem of Whiteness; controversy highlights greater ethnic studies debate

Robert Poe portrait
Justice studies graduate student Robert Poe poses for a portrait on Friday, April 24, 2015 at Hayden Library in Tempe.

One spring afternoon, justice studies doctoral student and faculty associate Robert Poe said he stood as the lone guard of not only a professor he respects, but also of the idea that ASU’s controversial ethnic studies class should be protected for the betterment of society.

Lee Bebout, who teaches the course called  “U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness” received many threats, including flyers describing him as “anti-white” distributed on campus and in his neighborhood — which would later escalate to the publishing of his address on Neo-Nazi websites.

These threats meant someone needed to ensure the professor’s safety, Poe said.

“I actually went and stood out in front of the building where he taught anticipating that someone might show up either to protest or to make real on some of those threats he was getting,” he said. “Luckily I was the only one there. … The one thing that there wasn’t was any kind of campus security in front of the building and for people who wouldn’t know me, someone with a shaved head and tattoos. It seems the right kind of person who would be the type of person to go after him and no one came up to me.”

ASU spokesman Mark Johnson said it is University policy to not comment on the security they provide for any faculty or staff member.

State of the debate

Justice studies graduate student and ASU associate professor Robert Poe speaks up against ASU's lack of action against the National Youth Front on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 on College Avenue in Tempe. (Gretchen Burnton/The State Press)

After sparking national controversy in January, which peaked when Fox News commentators zeroed in on the course, the class has continued to be offered this semester for its 19 enrolled students.

Poe said the ASU administration did not take a strong enough stance against the groups that threatened Bebout or protested the course, which included Neo-Nazi groups and the  National Youth Front, a national organization describing itself as an “elite youth organization dedicated to the preservation of America.”

“I was really outraged by ASU’s lack of support,” he said.

In the onset of the controversy, the ASU administration only released statements defending the subject matter and professor of the course, but did not condemn the groups speaking out against it.

In an  interview with the State Press editorial board in early April, President Michael Crow said the University doesn’t support the groups but must also allow for free speech.

“They don’t represent our values; they don’t represent the way we think," he said. "So we can ask them to stop, but they don’t have to.”

Poe led a  public teach-in near the Memorial Union on April 14, during which he addressed many of the issues surrounding the course. During the event, Poe also said he condoned the use of violence against hate groups that politically organize, which he said led to disciplinary action by the University.

On the ASU website, he is  labeled as a “faculty associate” but he is not listed as teaching any classes this semester.

Poe said this is the administration’s way of hiding his presence on campus in case donors are concerned about the statements he’s made.

“The way that they came down against me is to hide that I still exist here,” he said. “Essentially it’s just kind of an insult to me as someone who spends a lot of time contributing to the education of the campus.”

Johnson said in an email Poe’s status and online description has remained constant.

“Mr. Poe's role in teaching his class has not changed,” he wrote. “He is not the instructor of record on the course. He is mentored by the instructor of record, who holds advanced degrees in that discipline.”

When asked for comment about his course, Bebout wrote in an email that he preferred not to comment.

“ASU has asked me not to make public statements about the class, and I am going to respect their request at this time,” he said.

Angelo Gage, chairman of The National Youth Front, said in an email the NYF will continue to take action against the course because the teachings of the course are racist and unacceptable.

“We want whites to realize that they do have legitimate interests as a racial group and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with whiteness or being white,” he said. “The ‘Problem of Whiteness’ class literally claims that racial identification and ‘whiteness’ are somehow ‘wrong’ or a ‘problem’ yet everyone in this country enjoys all the things that ‘whiteness’ has given them: the highest standard of living, freedoms/liberties unparalleled, amazing technology and so forth.”

ASU journalism junior Lauren Clark, who spoke against the course on Fox News, declined to comment and, the organization for which Clark works, did not respond to requests.

Ethnic studies activists: ‘Not the first time’

Ruth Wilson Gilmore gives a keynote lecture during Ethnic Studies Week in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Lowery)

In his email, Gage also wrote that the NYF believes ASU’s course to be illegal under an Arizona Law that prohibits any “resentment toward a race or class of people.”

“ASU should obey the law and ban this class before more people realize what I have stated is true and take legal action against the University,” he said.

Although this law, as it stands, only applies to “a school district or charter school” and not public universities, Tony Diaz, a Texas-based writer who co-founded a pro-ethnic studies activist group there, said he fears discussions like the one surrounding the “Problem of Whiteness” could lead some to try to can courses in colleges as well.

“The bigger implication is if this may lead to legislation against other courses too,” he said.

The current law effectively bans Mexican-American courses in Arizona, and was especially impactful in the Tucson Unified School District, which had a large Mexican-American studies program.

Diaz said the controversy of the ASU class as well as this law shows the need for political organization on a large scale to keep ethnic studies in place.

“The state of ethnic studies in Arizona is having nationwide impact, which if it had not been attacked, it wouldn't have had a national impact and now we have organized nationwide probably in ways we haven’t in many decades,” he said.

Nelson Cabrera, who teaches education classes at UA, was asked by the Tucson School District to evaluate the relationship between students taking Mexican-American studies courses and their overall academic achievement.

His  2012 report found that students taking Mexican-American studies were significantly more likely to do well on their AIMS tests as well as more likely to graduate, and the more Mexican-American courses the students took, the greater their likelihood became for these two outcomes.

Cabrera said his report could also be extended to ASU’s course and shows why it’s so important universities offer classes like Bebout’s.

“Ethnic studies courses help increase cognitive growth and social development across a range of domains,” he said. “The ‘Problem of Whiteness’ course would fit very well within that paradigm of spurring cognitive and social development above and beyond the traditional ways of doing higher education.”

Cabrera said groups like created the controversy surrounding the ASU course because they didn’t research the course enough before sounding the alarms. As someone who has received threats himself for his work with ethnic studies, he also discussed the pressure that educators in this area face.

“The people who are being targeted by these sort of academic witch hunts, whether they are teachers in Tucson or the professor at ASU, there are human consequences to that,” he said. “The amount of stress that these folks are under is immense because they have to deal with constant threats because of this manufactured crisis, so there’s a very strong parallel between the two.”

What next?

Cabrera said ethnic studies teachers and advocates must continue to fight because now, more than ever, the world needs to promote cultural understanding.

“The reason that it is so controversial and people are getting so agitated by the name of a class like the ‘Problem of Whiteness’ or the Mexican-American curriculum, that is precisely the reason that we need these ethnic studies classes,” he said. “That’s what these ethnic studies classes are supposed to do, by highlighting alternative perspectives you break down a lot of the barriers that exist between us as people.”

Flora Farago, a doctoral student in Family and Human Development and the president of the Local to Global Justice club, said many of the people who oppose the “Problem of Whiteness” class are greatly uninformed.

“All the students who support the Fox News clip, I think they’re not necessarily racist, and I don’t think anyone in the administration is racist, but I do think there is ignorance about race, racism and racial tension in the U.S. which leads to misunderstandings like the ‘Problem of Whiteness’ class,” she said. “I think it just shows that we need more conversation about race and racism. … We need to be talking about these issues in order to avoid misunderstanding in the future.”

Farago said moving forward, she and others within ASU’s ethnic studies community are advocating for diversity education requirements at ASU.

“When it comes to white folks, we’re not always used to talking about race, racism and we definitely don’t experience it on our own skin,” she said. “I would advocate for required freshmen 101 classes surrounding race and racism.”

Report compiled by Emily Mahoney

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @mahoneysthename

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