Months ago I blogged about the strange case of Keith Sampson, a student at Indiana University who worked as a janitor there, who was brought up on disciplinary charges when someone complained that he was reading a book about the Klan in a janitor break room. Well, more specifically, a book about people standing up to and defying the Klan.
IU grievance-bureaucrat Lillian Charleston wrote Sampson a letter saying, among other things, the following:
The Affirmative Action Office has completed its investigation of Ms. Nakea Vincent's allegation that you racially harassed her by repeatedly reading the book, Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan by Todd Tucker in the presence of Black employees. In conducting this investigation, we interviewed you, Nakea Vincent, and other employees with information relevant to the mailer.
But that letter became non-operative soon after:
This letter will replace my prior letter to you dated November 25, 2007.
I wish to clarify that my prior letter was not meant to imply that it is impermissible for you or to limit your ability to read scholarly books or other such literature during break limes. There is no University policy that prohibits reading such materials on break time. As was previously stated, you are permitted to read such materials during appropriate times.
I also wish to clarify that my prior letter to you was meant only to address conduct on your part that raised concern on the part of your co-workers. It was the perception of your co-workers that you were engaging in conduct for the purpose of creating a hostile atmosphere of antagonism. Your perception was that you were reading a scholarly work during break time, and should be permitted to do so whether or not the subject matter is of concern to your coworkers.
Later, IU retreated, though maintained that Sampson's reading an anti-Klan book was hostile.
But IU can't leave well enough alone, as FIRE reports. When the Wall Street Journal — quite probably trying to use this ridiculous and embarrassing incident to discredit legitimate dialogue about race in America — profiled the case months after its resolution, IU suddenly tried to spin the matter by suggesting that the case was never about reading a book and that Keith Sampson was guilty of some sort of unspecified and uncharged behavior:
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.
What that conduct was, the affirmative action officer did not reveal – but she had delivered the message rewriting the history of the case. Absolutely and for certain there had been no problem about any book he had been reading.
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.
What vile bullshit. It's clear what happened, and the press flacks and administrators at IU lack the character or guts to say it: a campus inquisitor went after Sampson for reading an anti-Klan book he had every damn right to read in a manner that no rational person could find offensive. The WSJ article gives more details about Sampson's encounter with the bureaucracy of thuggish greivance:
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.
The university has allowed no interviews with Ms. Watkins or any other university official involved in the case
There's plenty of racism left in America, and it's a good thing that we're aware of it and that institutions work to combat it. But such programs are by their nature bureaucracies, institutions that encourage focus on big-picture mission over the facts of a particular case, and just as likely to be staffed by ideological nutcases or morons as any other institution. Institutions devoted to wiping out bias are just as vulnerable to it as any other institution (such as, perhaps, that a janitor could not possibly be reading a scholarly book for a legitimate reason, nor could a white person have a sincere interest in the history of the struggle against the Klan). An entity concerned with genuine issues of race would not stoop to discredit them by pursing the notion that an entirely irrational reaction to someone reading an anti-racist book should be accorded the least bit of attention or respect. It's good to be open to criticism and new ideas and even suggestions that conduct you thought was innocent may be offensive. But there are limits. If someone runs along and complains that I am reading a book in their presence — a book decrying racism — and that this is upsetting to them because the general topic of racism is offensive, then the response ought to be a rebuke, not indulgence.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- A Response To Marc: Institutions, Agendas, and the "Culture War" - January 13th, 2016
- Lawyering Is About Service, Not Self-Actualization - January 11th, 2016
- Lawsplainer: Was FAU Prof. James Tracy Fired in Violation of His First Amendment Rights? - January 7th, 2016
- Defy, Defy, Defy. - January 7th, 2016
- President Obama And The Rhetoric Of Rights - January 5th, 2016